Playground Safety: Fun Without the Injuries

Laura McMullen

For grown-ups, spring may signal barbecues, sweater sales and vacations. But for their kids, it's a little different. We've entered ice cream weather, when kids take their own kinds of vacations--to the playground. While disguised as magical lands of primary colors, slides and swings, playgrounds serve kids in more ways than dishing out ever-important fun. Playgrounds are where kids exercise, make friends (and maybe even first loves), and learn about risk taking, emotions and community. And while it seems like playgrounds have been around forever, many parents and grandparents can attest that they've changed their look a bit: Edges are rounded. Slides are shorter. Monkey bars are disappearing. What was metal is now plastic. Goodbye asphalt foundation, and hello bits of rubber. These changes are all, of course, in an attempt to make playgrounds safer.

And while the safety changes are definitely working, kids are still getting hurt. More than 200,000 children are rushed to the emergency room each year, thanks to injuries on childcare, school or park playgrounds, reports the National Program for Playground Safety. And these aren't just boo-boos. The most common injuries are typically fractures, contusions, abrasions and lacerations. Worse, the NPPS reports that an average of 15 kids die each year on the playground, typically from disasters like hangings, asphyxiations and head and neck injuries.

But let's return from the gloom and doom, to the primary colors and swings, where there are multiple players who can make a playground experience safe or unsafe. "If the kids, parents, teachers, babysitters and other caregivers make good choices, and the community provides good equipment and surfaces, we can really cut down on the number of injuries," says Kate Cronan, ER doctor at Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., and medical editor for Nemours' With the tips below, hopefully kids and parents can spend more of their spring at the playground, rather than the ER.

Scope out the playgound. "Playgrounds should be well-maintained, with no missing pieces, parts or dangling ropes," says Heather Olsen, assistant director for NPPS. If you see these issues, "remove the rope, and otherwise contact the operator of the playground to report that there's a concern of potential danger, because the agency might not even know there's a problem." Equipment should also be free of deterioration, rust, splinters, exposed bolts and protruding parts that can get caught on clothing, like open S hooks, suggests the NPPS and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Check out the playground's foundation, too. Falls to the ground account for nearly 70 percent of playground injuries, according to the NPPS, so avoid playsets atop concrete, asphalt, grass, blacktop and packed dirt or rocks. So which foundations get the NPPS sign-off? Mulch, pea gravel, sand and rubber mats and tiles are OK, so long as caregivers watch that younger kids don't mishandle the small parts.

Supervise the playing. "We could make the safest playground on the East Coast, but with too much rough-housing, kids will still get hurt," Cornan says. Misbehavior like pushing at the top of the slides and at see-saws, for example, can cause injuries that have nothing to do with the equipment.

Besides behavior, parents and caregivers must supervise--not hover around, but supervise--young kids' activity to prevent injuries, say Cornan and Olsen. Falling from monkey bars, for example, is how many kids land with broken wrists, elbows and sometimes head injuries. If parents permit their kids to climb the monkey bars, supervising can't mean standing off to the side and chatting with another mom. At that distance, if the kid falls, then he falls, and there's not much to do about it. But by spotting the kid and being close enough to catch him, you could save a wrist (or head) and ambulance ride.

Another injury culprit--swings. Twisting the swings, going too high and too fast, falling from swings, getting hit by a swinger and swinging while kneeling or standing can lead to serious injuries. So while caregivers shouldn't shut their kids off from swings--and probably couldn't even if they wanted to--they should make kids aware of these dangers. A 5-year-old, for example, may not think much about walking behind other kids swinging. Stopping him isn't hovering; it's protecting and teaching him. "It's a matter of using common sense and being careful, and for young kids, that's not ingrained yet," says Cornan.

Here are a few other common ways a kid can land in the ER, so take note: Kids ought to be sliding down (not scrambling up) slides. And they should be doing so one at a time, sans pushing at the top of the slide. And watch for kids under four using climbing equipment, as well as mismatches on a see-saw.

Safety beyond the playing. When heading out, as always, sport sunscreen and protective hats, Olsen says. Similarly, if the playground equipment has been sitting out in the sun without shade, adults should check that it's not too hot. And if the family plans to make a particularly effective exercise-fun combo by biking to the playground, Olsen urges kids to remove their helmets to prevent entrapment. "It's all about being careful," Cornan says, "but not so careful that you're living in a bubble."