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The dangers of indoor play areas
December 3rd, 2011
01:03 AM ET

The dangers of indoor play areas

Children’s indoor play structures - such as those areas containing tubes, tunnels, slides, climbing ropes and webs, as well as inflatables and trampolines - have become modern day conveniences.

They're found in fast-food restaurants and pay-for-play establishments in neighborhoods around the globe. Moderate estimates indicate that in the United States alone there are more than 15,000 of these facilities in operation. At an average of 50 children per day, this means 750,000 children per day are playing 270,000,000 times per year in indoor play areas.

In the summer of 2011 an impromptu visit to a play area inside a fast-food establishment became the impetus for what is now my personal campaign to improve children’s health. During that visit my children and I saw broken and failing equipment, rotting food, obscene graffiti, grime and filth, and what we later learned was fecal contamination.

When multiple reports to management fell on deaf ears, I enlisted the help of a microbiologist and an analytical lab to discern whether the conditions - in addition to being visually disturbing - were deleterious to children’s health. Those results indicated a problem far greater than I ever imagined.

Not only did we find pathogens that could make children ill, we found bacteria that were potentially deadly.

To be sure the conditions were not unique to that location, I traveled all over the country taking video and swabs. In the past six months I have gathered data from six national chains, as well as several independently owned establishments. Locations were chosen at random and represented high and low socio-economic statuses in both rural and urban areas.

Among my bacterial findings: Staph aureus, Pseudomonas, E. coli, Bacillus cereus and Coliforms. These can cause everything from nausea and vomiting, to skin infections, meningitis and death. Maintenance problems I found included broken second-story windows, missing bolts and screws, unsecured platforms, failing Plexiglas, and shredded webbing.

Equally as important is the feedback I get from parents. In the past few months I have received hundreds of messages telling me about their child’s illness or injury. These stories are enough to spur anyone into action.

Armed with input from parents, pediatricians, family practitioners, microbiologists and my own background as a child and adolescent development specialist, I set out to correct the problem. Along with my partner, Dr. Annissa Furr, I formed Kids Play Safe. We are a non-profit organization formed to raise awareness, conduct microbiological testing and reach out to the media and legislators in hopes to influencing public policy and instituting change.

Additionally, I drafted the Kids Play Safe bill. The bill amends current health codes to include soft contained play areas. In essence it grants health inspectors the regulatory authority to inspect the play area and the equipment and to enforce penalties should a problem exist.

To date, two states (Illinois and California) have picked up the bill and in Arizona, Maricopa County is adjusting the verbiage in the current health code. We are also reaching out to state restaurant associations, hospital associations, and pediatric associations for support.

Toddlers, preschool and elementary school-aged children, because of their primary behavioral patterns and their underdeveloped immune systems, are considered a subset of the population highly susceptible to illness, injury, and infection.

The current lack of regulation related to cleaning and maintenance of indoor play areas represents an imminent health and safety risk that is easily correctable. Cleaning and maintenance should be regular, thorough and verifiable and should apply to all food establishments with designated play areas.

To us the bottom line is that children deserve safe places to play and we will continue to work diligently to ensure that happens.

For more on Erin Carr-Jordan, executive director of Kids Play Safe, watch “Sanjay Gupta, M.D." at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday and Sunday.


soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. Portland tony

    More governmental regulations. If the fast food outlet has a dirty bathroom or play area don't take your youngsters in. I realize sometimes this is inconvenience, but since fast food is really not good for you or your children, eating there should be on a rare occasion. When you do Let them eat carry out, take em to the park.....maybe even eat it at home. Kids do need to have their immune system exposed to some pathogens to build up some immunity to them. If that's not the answer, outfit them in an environmental hazard suit.

    December 3, 2011 at 08:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. tamara reina

    All play areas for children are dangerous

    December 4, 2011 at 09:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. TJ

    Thought this might interest you.

    LY, Mom

    December 4, 2011 at 14:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. bremer

    what about emergency egress from these structures. how a bout accessing hard to reach areas of these playspaces in an emergency.

    December 4, 2011 at 21:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Heather

      We were in a building with a play tube area in Germany when mp's came in to evacuate the building because an old bomb had been found. Believe me, in an emergency, kids can be pulled out FAST.

      December 5, 2011 at 08:32 | Report abuse |
  5. S.L

    IL. Might have picked up the bill but they sure as hell don't enforce it. My kid's dentist has a play area like this. It is disgusting. Maybe it is time to call the health department.

    December 5, 2011 at 07:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Heather

    Most of them are rather awful. I was surprised to learn that the fast food place a few blocks from my house however, sends an employee through every night to scrub down and disinfect the tubes. It was a slow night when the topic came up and they started laughing about who would always end up getting sent through. On cabin fever winter days, I ended up taking my kids there a number of times when they were smaller.

    December 5, 2011 at 08:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • angelad

      We one near our area – they do clean them down every day. They physically shut the play area down mid afternoon everyday and disinfect, clean and scrub. So all us moms knew when to take the kids and when not. The restaurant was sure to clean it after the main lunch rush since all us moms were there – esp. in the winter time. So I suppose not all these structures can be lumped into the "gross" category. Problem is – they are so few and far between. On a side note – one particular place (not the clean one) we visited had a frog inside it and another time it had dried puke. My kids never liked to play inside the tubes @ that particular place – they just heard kids coming in from outside to tell their parents.

      December 5, 2011 at 09:00 | Report abuse |
  7. Angie

    Our local clown sponsored fast food restaurant has a playground. One day while there my son and other kids were playing up in the tubes and came running screaming down. There was feces in the tubing. All the parents complained to management and they did nothing. No apology, no shutting down of the play ground not even a look of concern. I refuse to take my son there and now he thinks I am the meanest mom in the world.

    December 5, 2011 at 09:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Josie

    I worked at a burger king with an area like that, nightly we had to clean the area. It was pretty bad on some nights. Only a couple of us could fit in the tubes, so guess who got to go and clean them out....me and one other person. But it is one area I know was clean and safe for the kids as well. If a parent told us there was an accident in the area, we would close it down till someone could get in there and clean it out. It's time consuming but if you have an area like that, then yes they need to be cleaned out regularly, just like the bathrooms do.

    December 5, 2011 at 10:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JamesT

      Like Josie I worked at a chain restaurant that installed an indoor playground. We did everything we could to keep the area clean. If we had to shut it down because of an accident we got complaints and nasty comments from parents because it wasn't open. Parents would also ignore the age and height restrictions then get mad when you told them their 'child' was too big. They'd let their little ones with full diapers go down the big slide, usually leaving a brown streak all the way down.

      December 5, 2011 at 18:05 | Report abuse |
  9. Tamara

    To me, this is just common sense: keep the area clean. Disenfect it daily. But common sense sure isn't so common these days.

    December 5, 2011 at 10:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Rhonda

    I own an indoor playground and we sanitize every two hours with a chemical that kills viruses, bacteria, and all kinds of nasty things. You have to look at who owns the playground–it's important to us because our kids play here, too. It does take a lot of work to maintain that standard, but it's worth it. And no, I would not let my kids play at the free areas in the mall or restaurants because for most of them, cleaning is an afterthought. Once a day is not enough.

    December 5, 2011 at 10:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. jos

    Do not lick the toilet.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. @askanepi

    The pathogens mentioned should not be exaggerated in the manner as the author describes. All of the organisms described are common and the majority of time, non-life threatening. A simple skin swab would likely find at least half of the organisms on a child's skin at any given time. S. aureus, P. areuginosa, E. coli and B. cereus can all cause severe infection, but this rarely occurs among healthy individuals. These are pathogens that primarily do serious damage to hospital patients that are immunodeficient or have intravenous lines. That being said, if restaurants provide areas for play, they should absolutely be held accountable for the cleanliness of these areas, at all times. Something as simple as Lysol or alcohol wipes can significantly reduce the number of most microorganisms on surfaces.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. R. Glenn

    I'd like to reconfirm @askanepi comment. By the way the article was written, the author would have you beleive these organisms are not common and found widespread. The fact is, they are very common and can be found in many places and environments. Most strains are fought off daily by our immune systems, however, while rare, there are strains that are deadly. The author reaveals her lack of understanding and paranoia in relationship to health, and unfortunately these are the type of individuals that create controlling laws. While we should be careful and clean, lets not go as far as to shut every potential danger to our children. Life is dangerous every time we play, but such fear only feeds our other problem, inactivity. An active person has a stronger immune system that can fight these common pathogens.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. dx2718

    Geesh – wherever kids play, there will be germs. While their bodies and minds are learning from the play, their immune systems are learning from exposure to the germs. Would you rather they get colds and flus at a young age, then have super immune systems and never get sick as adults, or grow fat and lazy because nowhere is safe enough for them to play, then get super sick when they ARE exposed to germs later in life?

    December 5, 2011 at 13:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. @askanepi

    dx2718: Your comment is the basis of the Hygiene Hypothesis, which does have scientific evidence. Limiting a child's immune system from exposure when young can have adverse effects later in life including allergies and *possibly* autoimmune disorders. Whether we like it or not, our human bodies benefit from the symbiotic relationship we need to maintain with bacteria.

    December 5, 2011 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Kent in TX

    The places that have indoor play areas should be required to keep them clean.

    If these places cannot or will not keep their play areas clean, the state & local health department can shut them down.

    If a dentist or doctor cannot or will not keep their play area clean, the state medical board can suspend their licenses.
    Your state & local representatives can motivate the proper health departments to do their jobs.

    The state prosecutors can also file charges of endangering the welfare of children.

    Judges, prosecuters & juriy members take the welfare of childten very seriously.

    Parents should make their kids wash their hands & faces with hot water & soap before they eat or drink anything.

    Parents should also realize that we always surrounded by a few dangerous germs (and tiny amounts of poisonous substances & harmful radiation) all the time.

    A lot of nasty germs & bad stuff can be dangerous; a little bit usually isn't.

    So make them keep their play areas, but don't panic about germs or bad stuff.

    December 5, 2011 at 13:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. sameoldsame7

    Maybe we should spend more time in finding why parents are afraid of letting their children play in a natural environment.....it's called the outdoors, nature, the woods, the stream down the road, playing kick ball in the back yard, exploring bugs and trees, collecting frogs.

    December 5, 2011 at 13:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kally White

      I do agree but some of us have extremely cold winters. When it's 4 degrees outside I personally don't enjoy letting them play in that cold. 25-30 degrees, is fine if they are bundled up. They can play in the snow and run around and do what children do.

      February 19, 2014 at 01:27 | Report abuse |
  18. dee

    And omg, they don't have toilet seat covers at my kid's school! What? she's not sick?

    December 5, 2011 at 14:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Nicole

    Our local clown owned establishment cleans their tubes daily. I've "gone through" more than a couple play areas with small children (to, erm, retrieve them) and haven't found broken equipment or feces or any filth. I'm sure there are bacteria, etc, but they also encounter that at school and in other parts of the community, although for an immunocrompromised children playgrounds, in general, are probably not a safe place.

    Now I can't speak to all areas, but in my area, which ranges from low to high socioeconomic conditions, I haven't encountered anything concerning. In addition at the only local place with a ball pit (owned by a swedish furniture company) the ball pit is shut down for any "accidents" until it can be cleaned. To me, the benefits of play outweigh the risks for a healthy child. Plus unlike the local park these indoor places usually have to clean the tubes daily I am much more concerned about doctor office play areas.

    December 5, 2011 at 14:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Sherry

    yes, they should come under restaurant health laws but I bet most chains will l just close them down. I've noticed fewer and fewer mcD's with playgrounds lately.

    December 5, 2011 at 15:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • dom625

      The reason for not putting playgrounds in is because of liability issues. If a child falls and hurts himself, the parent can sue McDonald's, even if the restaurant is not responsible for the injury. Better to simply forgo the play place and avoid possible lawsuits.

      December 5, 2011 at 16:12 | Report abuse |
  21. Steve

    Tragically, you're talking about many establishments that don't even do well for keeping restrooms clean. Additionally, I was in a restaurant for lunch one day, and took a moment to go into the restroom. One of the employees was in there and he was using a urinal and had placed the rag he was carrying on the urinal in front of him. When done, he did wash his hands, BUT, took the rag he had on the urinal, and went back into the restaurant and began wiping tables down with the same rag!!! I immediately complained to management and demanded they do something.

    December 5, 2011 at 15:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Steve

    PS, since I read about this Dr's visit to McDonald's, and their banning her from the establishment rather than taking measurements to clean up the play areas, I have not been back to McDonald's since, and tell everyone I know that they should avoid that place.

    December 5, 2011 at 15:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Steve

    I guess that should be taking measures....

    December 5, 2011 at 15:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Rob

    People are stupid. Its clear that we're dealing with an overpopulation issue, and yet we still shoot our own feet with this sort of stupid regulation generating nonsense.

    How about we improve humankind with a bit of natural selection? Let the kids who lick at a dried stool stains and chew on wall paint remove themselves.

    December 5, 2011 at 17:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. kps2468

    I have been following this story and this woman knows what she is talking about. In fact, some of the the leading Microbiologists in the country have seen her results and agree with her. According to the webpage and the interview with Dr Gupta she found numbers that were in millions which is high enough to be considered dangerous and the pathogens she found are among those considered most dangerous by the CDC and FDA. Why argue over the woman doing the study? How about urging McD'S and others to clean and maintain their play areas.

    December 5, 2011 at 19:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Laura

    We were in the play area in our local mall and a little boy, obviously not potty trained but not in diapers either, was climbing on one of the toys. As we watched, he peed all over it and his mother picked him up and walked out. It was the last time we ever visited an indoor play area.

    December 5, 2011 at 20:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kally White

      I do agree with some of the comments here, saying that children should be playing outdoors and with nature BUT some of us do have very cold winters and sometimes bringing the kids outside is not an option. I'm all for letting the kids play out in the snow, but when it's 7 degrees (and under) and windy for days, no way!
      No germs on outdoor playgrounds? (Sarcasm)

      I do believe all play areas indoor and out should be cleaned! Parents also need to make the right decisions as well, for example if your child isn't potty-trained or is accident prone, they should wear some type of pull-up or diaper while in the play area. I realize that some children may be potty-trained and usually don't have accidents, however if they do, tell an employee so it can be taken care of. And have your children sit and eat their food, don't let them bring it inside the tubes with them. Have them wash their hands when they are done eating and/or before they go in the play area.

      February 19, 2014 at 02:05 | Report abuse |
  27. ryan

    There is a McDonalds in the town I am stationed in. According to the health report card they have posted, they get in the high 90s on their inspections. We went their one time, and that was it. We sat in the playscape room and it smelled and the floor was sticky and had food all over. I had to go up and get my son one time because he got stuck (he was littler) and it was disgusting crawling through there. I felt dirty when i got out and had to go wash my hands. We never went back. We prefer going to the Chic-fil-a.

    December 5, 2011 at 21:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Jaded

    My 15 year old daughter played at indoor play areas when she was little and now she is gay and has ADD. Conincidental? I think not!

    December 5, 2011 at 22:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jujubeans

      did she also watch t.v?

      February 19, 2014 at 11:20 | Report abuse |
  29. SixDegrees

    So, we need more government regulations because you've just now learned that children are filthy? Here's a novel thought: teach your kids not to leave food or take dumps in the play area. And if it's really that bad, why do you keep going back? It may be satisfying to forcefully ram your agenda down everyone else's throats, but customers not returning will usually fix things faster and better than turning the problem over to the Vogons.

    December 6, 2011 at 02:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. mmi16

    Life causes death.

    Anything you survive makes you stronger!

    Exist in a sterile enviornment and die when you enter reality!

    December 6, 2011 at 03:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. SixDegrees

    Also – what's wrong with parents? Your kid chucks a half-eaten Happy Meal into the ball pit, or takes a dump in it, or pukes all over the slide...and you just leave it there and demand the restaurant clean it up? How about taking a tiny smidgen of responsibility and asking the restaurant for a bucket so you can clean up your own mess?

    December 6, 2011 at 04:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Beth

    I don't care. I LOVE indoor play places. As a kid, they were my #1 favorite thing. I seek out actual ball pits and play places for the kids. Sure, we wash our hands. But I would NEVER stop attending. The outdoor ones are way more gross, from what I've seen. Now that I have kids, we LOVE indoor play places, too! I have never seen a bad indoor one, but plenty of bad outdoor ones. (try dog poo all over a slide outside, smeared, and human pee in a tunnel (from a teen). But the indoor ones have more supervision. Germs are everywhere. Get over it. And I HATE height limits. They are such discrimination they make me sick to my stomach. Every child should be able to play, even if they have the unfortunate condition of being tall.

    December 6, 2011 at 08:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Samuel Bogale Calgary Alberta

    Germs are a fact of life – that's why we are equipped with immune systems. The benefits of these indoor playgrounds far ourweigh the negatives!

    January 19, 2012 at 14:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. liat

    this is nuts. all play areas are not dangerous. by not exposing kids to germs you will end up causing them worse problems in life later, our immune systems need to work. this isnt to say play areas shouldnt be cleaned but gee whiz, go test your local mall. any crowded area will have this problem.

    August 8, 2012 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. lake kids

    Great points altogether, you just gained a new reader. What could you suggest about your publish that you just made a few days ago? Any sure?

    September 27, 2012 at 08:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Gary Fuller

    Restuarants should not have a play area for children at all. Parents can take their children to a park, after they eat all their food and of course if the parent thinks the child is deserving. These play areas are nearly impossible to maintain and keep clean on a daily basis and parents need to quit whining about this and keep their chidren away accordingly. In addition these restuarants that continue to use these play areas to coax children with their paying adults in should be ashamed. Many of these restuarants in my area have begun taking these play areas down.

    September 30, 2012 at 08:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Anthony Salerno

    I think you should all take a look at what we are doing at extremefielddayforkids.com

    January 16, 2014 at 19:01 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.