Playground Safety

Help your kids play injury-free.

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Well-designed playgrounds have built-in safety features.

One child is injured every 2-1/2 minutes in the United States on playground equipment. And each year, about 200,000 of those children end up in hospital emergency rooms because of their injuries -- many involving falls from too-high equipment onto too-hard surfaces. Nearly 70 percent of the injuries happen on public playgrounds, which recent studies show may be badly designed, with inadequate protective surfaces and poorly maintained equipment.

How can you best protect your child? Make sure the equipment is safe for play and that children are playing safely, says Donna Thompson, director of The National Program for Playground Safety, a non-profit group funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Using your common sense and recognizing common playground hazards are the best ways to prevent injuries, say safety experts.

The types of playground equipment contributing to the most injuries are:

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  • Swings
  • Climbers, such as monkey bars, overhead ladders, and rings
  • Slides

Watch Them Play

Make sure the equipment is suitable for your child's abilities.

During our sedentary, security-conscious age when television, computers, and fear limit children's free play and exercise at home, youngsters need freedom on a playground. Parents should "watch actively" and "intercede -- not interfere," says Thompson.

Your involvement will vary by a child's age and individual development. Young children, for example, don't understand cause-and-effect -- so they may run in front of moving swings. They're also better at climbing up than getting down -- so they may panic at the top of a ladder. Parents should always be within shouting and running distance of their children, says Betsy Caesar, a playground designer in suburban Philadelphia. "You don't have to be right on top of them as long as you can see them and know what they're doing," she says. "It's important to the children that they know you're watching them. Once they feel that sense of security, that's when they can be creative."

Challenge vs. Risk

Are children on the right equipment for their age and size? Are they using it the right way? Children should only use equipment they can reach on their own, advises Caesar. This means a 3-year-old should not be lifted onto a horizontal climber designed for a 7-year-old. Instead, show children which equipment is appropriate for their size and strength. Some new equipment now is labeled with age and surfacing recommendations.

Children should be challenged -- but kept away from risks. "A risk is a situation where we know kids are likely to be injured," says Donna Thompson. "A challenge deals with helping children use their abilities." So children should try to climb higher, but not use equipment that's so high a fall could cause greater injury. For example, if equipment is higher than 6 feet for preschoolers and 8 feet for older kids, it doesn't add extra challenge, but does add extra risk of injury from a fall.

Before giving your children the green light to play, look around for these hazards, as outlined by the National Program for Playground Safety:

  • Too-hard surfaces under and around play equipment. The surface should have at least 12 inches of mulch, wood chips, sand, or pea gravel -- or be lined with mats made of rubber or rubberlike material.
  • Equipment with an inadequately defined and cushioned "fall zone" -- the area under and around swings, bars, and other equipment.
  • Swing seats made of wood or metal, which cause more severe injuries upon impact than soft seats. There should be one or two swings per bay.
  • Spaces that could trap children. Openings between guardrails and bars should measure less than 3 1/2 inches or more than 9 inches.
  • Open S-hooks on swings or protruding bolt ends that can cause strangulation if entangled in a child's clothing, especially drawstrings.

For more information, contact the National Program for Playground Safety c/o School of Health, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0618.

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