Spend an hour at a playground, and there's a good chance that you'll see a child in tears. As long as kids climb, play tag, and reenact superhero battles, a few bruises and scrapes will be part of the scene. But not all mishaps on the swings, slides, and monkey bars can be fixed with a Band-Aid. According to the National Safety Council, playground injuries send more than 200,000 American children to the emergency room each year. And every year, about 15 playground accidents turn fatal.
Playgrounds are a great asset for any community. They provide a gathering place where kids and parents alike can get some much-needed fresh air. And at a time when rates of childhood obesity are skyrocketing, anything that encourages kids to stay active takes on extra value.
But if you're a parent, you need to take some steps to make sure that a trip to the park doesn't turn into a disaster. There are no national requirements for playground safety, and most states don't have any laws of their own. As a result, parents have to be extra vigilant.
Falls are, by far, the leading cause of playground injuries, a fact that won't surprise any parent of young children. It takes years for a child's strength and coordination to catch up with her love of climbing, and some pieces of playground equipment seem designed to encourage falls. The National Safety Council recommends keeping all children under four off of ladders or other climbing equipment, but even older children take plenty of spills.
Falls aren't just common; they're also extremely serious. Broken bones, concussions, and paralysis are possible outcomes when a child falls. A recent survey of children brought to emergency rooms found that kids hurt in playground falls were more likely than kids in car accidents to have moderate to severe injuries.
The severity of a fall depends on two major factors: the height of the fall and the resistance of the landing surface. A 2000 study published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention found that kids who fall from five feet or higher are twice as likely to be seriously injured as kids who take shorter plunges.
Likewise, kids who land on packed dirt, grass, or, even worse, concrete or asphalt are far more likely to be seriously hurt than kids who land on sand, wood chips, pea gravel, or rubber mats. But even these surfaces may be unsafe if they aren't deep or thick enough to cushion a fall. The study in Accident Analysis and Prevention found that more than 80 percent of kids severely injured in falls landed on a so-called "safe" surface. The problem: the surfaces were often only one inch deep, far less than an effective level.
The next time you take a kid to the playground, make sure it's safe enough for your little climber. According to the Consumer Safety and Product Commission, all playground surfaces should be covered with either a rubber or rubber-like mat or at least 12 inches of pea gravel, sand, mulch, or wood chips. Go to enough playgrounds, and you'll see that many don't come even close to the mark. The landing surface should stick out at least six feet in every direction from the play structures. And to prevent falls in the first place, all platforms or ramps should have guardrails or other barriers.
Some of the worst falls happen from swings. Toddlers and babies should use only full-bucket swings, not half-bucket swings. Swings shaped like animals have caused fatal accidents and severe injuries and should be removed from playgrounds. Animal swings are dangerous because they can hit children in the head if they stray too close. According to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, one child even lost sight in one eye. Swings should also be at least two feet apart, and the swing set should be far away from the rest of the playground. Of course, all swing sets should be over a soft material suitable for safe landings.
When checking out a playground, here are some other things to keep in mind:
- Make sure surfaces and fixtures have no exposed bolts, "S" hooks, wood splinters, or sharp edges.
- Merry-go-rounds should be flat and equipped with solid handles. They should also have enough ground clearance to make it impossible for kids to get pinned underneath.
- Slides should be smooth, and there should be no gap between the slide and the platform. Keep in mind that metal slides can burn on a hot day.
- Toddlers and preschoolers should have their own play area with age-appropriate equipment.
- Make sure there are no strings, belts, or straps hanging from your child's clothing.
- Keep a close eye on your children. The safest playgrounds are the ones where parents are looking out for kids. Make sure children -- including your own -- are playing on the equipment safely. Discourage your child from going down a slide headfirst, for example.
- If a playground is outdated or dangerous, ask your local government to fix it. Having other parents sign a petition or contacting the local paper will help move things along.
- Finally, if your child is a toddler or a preschooler, it's good to stay within a few feet of where she is playing. That way you can encourage safe play and be there if she needs help.
Helping your child learn the safe way to use the equipment will lead to many accident-free days of play.
National Safety Council. Playground Safety. http://www.nsc.org/news_resources/Resources/Documents/Playground_Safety.pdf
Phelan. K.J. et al. Trends and patterns of playground injuries in United States children and adolescents. Ambulatory Pediatrics, Vol. 227-233.
Risk factors for severe injuries associated with falls from playground equipment. Accident Analysis and Prevention. 32(3): 377-382.
National Program for Playground Safety. S.A.F.E. National Action Plan, http://www.playgroundsafety.org/safe/index.htm