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On the playground, it’s not the fall -- it’s the landing

December 14, 2009 |  5:13 pm

Parents eyeballing public playground hazards may first look to the infamous monkey bars, perilously high above the earth.

They have reason to fear. “You see monkey bar injuries and monkey bar injuries and monkey bar injuries,” pediatric orthopedic surgeon Andrew W. Howard said of his line of work.

What they may not look at is the ground itself. In a study published today in PLoS Medicine, Howard and his fellow researchers documented the playground injuries at 37 elementary schools in Toronto. They found that children who fell from a height onto a wood chip surface were nearly five times more likely to sustain an arm fracture than children who fell onto granite sand.

Both surfaces meet school safety standards, Howard said, but what gives granite sand the edge is each surface’s sliding friction. When a person falls, the surgeon pointed out, the hand usually hits the ground before the body does, which could force the arm to bend beyond the load it can carry. But granite sand allows the hand to slide a little bit, saving the arm from a nasty break.

The study took advantage of a playground safety overhaul that the Toronto School District Board was going through at the time – so no other surfaces, such as those made from recycled rubber, were examined.

But of the 5,900 fracture-related hospitalizations that happen as a result of a playground fall in the United States, the study observes, 3,900 to 4,700 could be prevented if they had occurred on granite sand surfaces.

Time to level all the playgrounds in America?

“I don’t think we need to call the gravel trucks tomorrow,” Howard said in an interview. “But in a gradual enlightened way we should be using sand under playground whenever possible as the falling surface.”

If you feel like seeing if your child’s playground is up to standard, here’s a safety checklist courtesy of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

-- Amina Khan