Upgrading Playground Infrastructure to Ensure Children’s Right to Play

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden speaks on the playground at Samuel Smith Elementary in Burlington City, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Simply put, we do not know the condition of the Nation’s Playgrounds. Of course, municipalities do inspections. However, this information is not collected, collated, and analyzed. What do we know?

Since 1995 the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) has been gathering data on playgrounds, including generating report cards on 6,045 playgrounds. Since NPPS’ was founded during a rising awareness of the need to improve playground safety, their primary focus has been on fall surfaces and maintenance. They have also looked at an “appropriate environment,” again within the context of standards for age and accessibility. Their work has been, and continues to be, needed and relevant.

KABOOM has been doing a superb job of championing play for underserved communities. Their goal is for every kid to have access to incredible places to play. Not only a worthy goal but also one that they have worked tirelessly to achieve. In recent years they have expanded their focus to look beyond playgrounds to the community as a whole.

Recently it occurred to me that even though I’ve been creating play systems for over five decades, I have no idea how many there are. From what I have been able to glean from population and planning statistics, there is about one public playground for every 5000 people. That is roughly the same ratio for elementary school playgrounds. The nation’s population is a bit over 330,000,000 people / 5000 playgrounds x 2 = 132,000 playgrounds. My previous estimates were off by order of magnitude, but this is an enormous community investment and asset. Roughly 550 kids of ages 2 to 11 have a playground at school and in a park.

The NPPS program and other studies show an alarming rate of safety, non-compliance, and maintenance issues. There is, however, no systematic assessment of these problems. In addition, if the goal is ensuring that children have a right to play everywhere, it would also be great to how many communities lack adequate play infrastructure.

Currently, play infrastructure is not considered in the Biden Administration’s plans to Build Back Better. 

I propose a unified lobbying effort to Contact Pete Buttigieg’s office and request that playgrounds be included in the forthcoming legislation. Portions of the bill that can apply to playgrounds are the plans to modernize public schools and improve public housing. The section on Remediate and redevelop idle real property, and spur the buildout of critical physical, social, and civic infrastructure in distressed and disadvantaged communities offers a good opportunity.

Several organizations can join this effort and help make a case for assessing and upgrading play infrastructure. We could start by asking IPEMA to get a ballpark number of playgrounds. They tend to be very circumspect about sales, but there are easy ways to anonymize their information. The industry can also inform the issue of jobs created, which is a cornerstone of the legislation.

As the experts in addressing underserved communities, the team at KABOOM can provide invaluable expertise. Their nationwide network of community organizations and their capacity for organizing and training are unparalleled and can help provide the infrastructure for the program.

NRPA should certainly weigh in, and the Certified Playground Safety Inspector program will play a huge role. Ideally, CPSI inspectors will have their training upgraded to go beyond compliance and to look for opportunities to improve playgrounds to be more inclusive and appropriate.

Finally, the International Play Association can and should play a central role in promoting the Child’s Right to Play. It is important to note that when China signed the U.N. resolution and required early childhood programs to comply, it spawned Anji Play, transforming their entire preschool program. Putting the Right to Play as the lead message is critical. This emphasis might even expand the initiative to consider children’s play in all the infrastructure programs.

We might want to talk with Jill Biden. Hey, Pete! How about a plan for safe streets for play?

2 thoughts on “Upgrading Playground Infrastructure to Ensure Children’s Right to Play

  1. I’m going to be calling on you to bring this initiative to Canada. Those of us who can remember when reps used to be able to share a beer and laugh together, regardless of the company we represented built this industry and many of the existing playgrounds. We have a legacy to protect.


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