Is such sweeping change even possible in public recreation?
Yes. In fact, it’s already happened for conventional playgrounds.
Over the past quarter-century, the splash pad industry has blossomed while the playground industry has experienced both consolidation and significant safety improvement. There are somewhere between 70,000-100,000 public playgrounds in the U.S., and hundreds of thousands more private playgrounds.
As the industry grew, playground manufacturers formed a trade association (IPEMA) and created standards for safety surfacing. The need for better safety surfacing became apparent when the CDC, through the NEISS database, began tracking playground injuries during the late-1970s and early-1980s. When the data revealed that nearly 200,000 children per year experienced playground injuries that necessitated emergency room visits, the playground industry responded with dramatically improved safety regulations.
As one example of these new regulations, in 1991, IPEMA created ASTM standard F1292, which measures “impact attenuation.” Impact attenuation estimates the height from which someone could fall onto a surface and still avoid a significant impact injury (e.g., concussion, broken bones). During the 1990s, while the splash pad industry was still in its infancy, this standard was widely adopted for public and commercial playgrounds.
As a result, playgrounds that had once been surfaced with gravel, concrete, or asphalt were resurfaced with materials with greater cushioning, such as poured-in-place rubber, rubber tiles, engineered wood fiber, rubber mulch, or sand. Because these new playground surfaces have greater impact attenuation, now when children trip—or fall from elevated play structures—they hit a cushioned surface and have a much lower chance of being seriously injured. Meanwhile, lacking a similar safety standard, splash pads continue to be built with hard, unforgiving surfaces like broomed concrete.
The safety revolution that transformed dry playgrounds is long overdue for splash pads. We believe that creating similar standards for splash pads will reduce injuries and provide a significant benefit to public health, thereby creating a safer future for aquatic recreation, for our families, and for our communities.