Injury and Liability Concerns Force Playground Closures in Winter

Injury and Liability Concerns Force Playground Closures in Winter
The parking area behind Lake Ave. Elementary that will now be used for winter play
Laura Rappaport

December 28 2012

Baby, it’s cold outside. And that means kids all over the region are being kicked off their school play sets.

The problem isn’t that the monkey bars are too slippery for mittened hands or the metal slides too cold for young bottoms. It’s that the frozen ground underneath becomes so hard that kids could get badly hurt if they fall off. And then the school district could get sued.

Because frozen ground is as hard as blacktop or cement, the chance of head injuries and other serious breaks from falling off play sets increases in winter, according to safety experts.

In the Saratoga Springs City School District, five of the six elementary schools have alternative places to play when their play structures are cordoned off for winter. They have playing fields, or open space surrounding their school building.

But Lake Avenue Elementary School, built as a high school more than 50 years ago, is wedged into a small parcel of land, surrounded by three streets and an alleyway. It has two play sets on a relatively tiny lot facing Regent Street, and a basketball court on the Marion Place side of the building. But there is nowhere to run or play in winter when the central administration tells principals to close the play sets.

As a result, Lake Avenue kids spent most of last winter indoors at recess, and this has parents steamed.

“Study after study shows that if kids get outside, get some air, they study better, they concentrate better,” says Charlie Samuels, one of the parents leading the effort to create more outdoor play space for students this winter. He also says that getting outdoors helps combat obesity, and maintain fitness and health in an era when children stay indoors too much and don’t move enough.

Samuels says a temporary arrangement reached with the district administration will get them through the winter.

The way it sits now, the alleyway on the south side of the school building is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays for children to play. On those days, the district blocks the alley off from the street with orange traffic cones.

Delivery drivers who typically use the alley to bring supplies into the school have agreed not to drive down it on Tuesdays and Thursdays, says Superintendent Michael Piccirillo.

The parent committee wants to replace the cones with a swing gate for safety. They also want to cut a gate into the high fence that surrounds the basketball court, so kids can have easy access between the alley and the court for free play.

“We’re supportive of that, but we have to work out some details…like who’s going to pay for it,” Piccirillo says. Samuels thinks the committee will easily be able to raise the $2,000 or $3,000 they think the project will cost, because the school has a generous parent community.

The district plans to plow, salt and sand the space, getting the alley down to a bare surface for vehicles, and to keep ice and hard packed snow from piling up, Piccirillo says. School staff will have to be flexible, and remember that plowing the play area might not be the top priority when a big snowfall hits at an inconvenient time.

“We might not be able to accommodate same-day service,” he says.

Also, he says, turning over this space to the kids creates a challenge for maintenance workers who use it for piling up plowed snow.

On the other three days of the week, teachers will have to get creative in order to get students outdoors. The East Side Recreation fields are a bit too far to walk in the short recess period, but students can walk in the neighborhood or even take a bus to the fields, if desired.

“The idea of just walking is not as fun or exciting as running around at recess,” Piccirillo says. But if it’s the only option, teachers might find a walk is better than keeping their kids cooped up all day. Some local schools build neighborhood walks into their day.  Just around the corner from Lake Ave., for example, children at the private Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs routinely walk or jog around the blocks encompassing their school.

Piccirillo says he’d offer an aide to help chaperone walks. Last year, a bus was made available to take students to the East Side Recreation fields, a few blocks east of the school, but the school didn’t use it.

Saratoga Springs is not the only local district to close play apparatus in winter, as it turns out. But each district has its own policy, and typically make case-by-case decisions.

In Schuylerville and Glens Falls, teachers tell kids to keep off the jungle gyms in winter. Those schools do have fields where the children can romp around or sled, ski and snowshoe.

“We’re lucky in that regard,” says Skye Heritage, spokeswoman for Glens Falls City Schools.

Meanwhile up north in Plattsburgh, which gets much more snow than Saratoga, the playgrounds are open all year and children go outside every day the mercury is above zero.

“Snow and cold do not deter us unless it’s below zero,” says Plattsburgh Superintendent James Short. “We keep it that simple, to tell you the truth.”

Short says that when it’s really cold, kids lose interest in the play structures and would rather sled on a nearby hill or cross-country ski or snowshoe around the perimeter of the school.

“Schools should look at what alternative things can you do for your kids,” he says. Even at his middle school, where there’s no formal recess period, the gym is now open during lunch periods so kids who eat quickly can go run around a little.  “We call it ‘stress relief,’ whether it’s for the adults or the kids, I’m not sure,” Short says.

In Saratoga Springs, by contrast, recess is usually indoors when the temperature dips below 20 degrees F, which is most of the winter in this region.

This is only the second winter that all of the school district’s play apparatus has been closed. The decision was made last year based on recommendations from the district’s liability insurance company, says Mark Sullivan, who is the district’s safety specialist, contracted through Capital Region BOCES. He reported on playground safety issues to Lake Avenue parents and administrators last year.

Other reasons for the closure included a desire to follow voluntary guidelines published by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission and recommendations in the company warrantees on the playground surfacing, Sullivan says.

The manufacturers’ warrantees on all sorts of material, from rubberized wood chips to the poured-in rubber matting, state they shouldn’t be used when the ground is frozen, Sullivan says.

According to Sullivan, last year’s annual review by the district’s liability insurer, New York School Insurance Reciprocal, turned up this deficit. The district risked losing its coverage if it didn’t make a change, Sullivan says.

“Snow and ice get into it and it becomes like concrete,” Sullivan says. “You’re going to be held to the standard when somebody’s injured.”

Falling from the monkey bars causes more serious injuries than falling from a standing position on an ice skating rink or sidewalk, he points out. “There, you’re not falling off equipment that’s four or five feet off the ground which is like asphalt.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 200,000 children a year are treated at emergency rooms for playground-related injuries.

Although there aren’t any state or federal regulations for playground surface safety, Sullivan says a district leaves itself open to lawsuits if a serious injury results from not following basic industry guidelines.

“The district has a duty by law to abide by a standard of care – we don’t want anybody to get injured,” Sullivan says. “To say we can live with a couple of injuries is not acceptable.”

The playground surface issue is bound to play center stage over the next year or more as three of the district’s elementary schools develop plans to build new playgrounds. Sullivan says they should start with the ground – as the surface is the most important part of any playground. There are also accessibility rules from the Americans with Disabilities Act for all new public playgrounds.

You can link to the Consumer Product Safety Commission voluntary playground standards HERE.



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