Playgrounds are a terrific place for kids to get some exercise, have fun, and make new friends. But alarmingly, they can also be a breeding ground for all sorts of bacteria – some of which may have the potential to make your child sick.
To see which types of germs tend to lurk on playground equipment, we sent a team to collect samples from various surfaces at outdoor and indoor playgrounds and had them tested at an independent lab.
What sorts of bacteria might kids encounter on the slide, swings, rock wall, and other areas? Which surfaces are the germiest? And how do germs at outdoor playgrounds compare with those found on common household items and surfaces? Grab the wet wipes – and keep reading to get the nitty-gritty truth about playground germs.
Playground Germs vs. Home Germs
What do you worry about at the playground? Unleashed dogs? Strangers? Bullying? It turns out the biggest risk to your children may actually be germs – millions upon millions of germs. At most outdoor play areas, the equipment is cleaned infrequently, if at all. And despite frequent reminders from their parents – “Cover your mouth!” “Use a tissue!” “Don’t forget to wash your hands!” – kids aren’t necessarily known for their hygiene habits.
Between these two factors, nasty bugs can spread across the playground, as small hands grasp the swings, grip the monkey bars, and push off from the slide. The disturbingly disgusting result? According to our test results, the playground may be many times more germ-infested than virtually any surface in your home – from the damp toothbrush holder on your bathroom counter to the dish your dog (or cat) licks clean after every meal.
For your children, it may be one of the happiest places on Earth – but your local playground may also be a hotbed for millions of bacteria. We tested commonly touched surfaces to find the number of colony-forming units (CFUs) – viable cells – per square inch. The results? Rock walls, baby swings, and seesaws were by far the germiest: All three teemed with 9 million CFU/sq. in., – which is over 52,000 times more bacteria than a typical home toilet seat.
The slides, too, were crawling with germs: Both the top and the bottom of the slide average 6 million CFU/sq. in. On the low end, the monkey bars averaged 63,000 CFU/sq. in., while tunnels had only 30,000 CFU/sq. in. and big-kid swings only 40 CFU/sq. in. And as we’ll explore below, some of these germs have the potential to make your kids sick.
For many parents, indoor playgrounds are ideal for rainy days or simply a change of scenery. The good news? The play equipment at the indoor playgrounds we swabbed harbored far fewer bacteria than the outdoor playgrounds we tested.
Kids racing down the slide at an outdoor playground may actually encounter around 60,000 times more bacteria than they would at the top of the slide at the local fast food joint or other indoor play area. In the tunnels where kids love to crawl, the difference was dramatic as well. The outdoor playground tunnels averaged 1,500 times more bacteria than the indoor playground tunnels.
Why the added yuck factor at the park’s play equipment? Probably because unlike most outdoor playgrounds, many indoor playgrounds (such as those in fast food restaurants) undergo regular cleaning and disinfecting. And many surfaces (such as the rock wall) can contain hard-to-clean crevices – so even if you did decide to get ambitious with a pack of wet wipes, it probably wouldn’t do much good.
Chances are if a playground is teeming with children, it’s also teeming with germs. After all, before they touch play equipment (and one another), kids have been known to sneeze with abandon and wipe their noses with their hands. Handwashing after using the bathroom may prove too time-consuming to a child who wants to get back to having fun. And toddlers clad in leaking diapers may sit on slides and swings. The horrifying result? Many playgrounds contain some pretty nasty types of germs – including those found in fecal matter and sinuses.
Our indoor playground samples yielded disturbing results: 100 percent were gram-positive cocci, which is a common cause of skin infections – and can even cause other, more serious illnesses.
Our outdoor playground equipment contained greater germ variety. The good news? 38 percent of the bacteria were gram-positive rods, which aren’t usually harmful. However, 31 percent were gram-negative rods, which do have the potential to cause illness and often resist antibiotics (cholera and E.coli are both examples of gram-negative rods).
Another 23 percent were bacillus, a bacteria type often found in soil that can be harmful or helpful. Only 8 percent were gram-positive cocci, which are linked to skin infections and other illnesses.
Keep Playing (But Stay Healthy)
Don’t let germs keep your kids from enjoying the playground. The latest research reveals that it may actually be possible to raise children in an environment that’s too clean – and the ultra-sterile environments can actually make kids more susceptible to certain illnesses. But that doesn’t mean you want your child licking her hands after touching the bacteria-laden rock wall.
Strike a healthy balance with a few easy steps. First and foremost? The preschool teachers and popular TV show characters aren’t kidding when they sing songs about the importance of washing hands. This simple habit is one of the most important actions kids can take to keep illness at bay and stop the spread of germs to others. Keep encouraging handwashing until it becomes a habit.
Other simple steps: Keep the family home when they’re sick, change diapers only in designated areas, and encourage your kids to keep their hands away from their faces (especially their mouths, noses, and eyes) while they’re playing. If you’re concerned, you can ask park officials or indoor playground employees about a playground’s cleaning and sanitizing regimen. Encourage your kids to enjoy the playground equipment to their hearts’ content – but don’t get us started on sandboxes.
Using TransPorter Sterile Transport Swabs provided by EMLab P&K, we swabbed a total of 11 different pieces of playground equipment at three different playgrounds: two outdoor and one indoor.
We then sent our swabs to the lab provided through EMLab P&K to analyze our results. In turn, they provided us with the number of colony-forming units present on each of the surfaces we swabbed as well as a breakdown of the specific bacteria present. Using the numbers from each surface, we were able to determine the average colony-forming units and bacteria distributions for each surface in our sample.
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