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Tips to keep your kids safe on the playground

It can be a tough balancing act on how involved parents and caregivers should get on the playground. Here are some tips on when to step in and what safety features to look for in a playground.

Most parents struggle with a common balancing act, trying to ensure that their children are safe while fostering a sense of adventure and freedom. Nowhere is this captured more perfectly than on the playground. Should you encourage your kids to climb on a new piece of equipment or barrel down the highest slide? Or should you give into your more anxious inner dialogue: Are they climbing too high? Running too fast? Should they even be touching that thing in the ground?

As with all aspects of raising children, preparation and rational thought is what's necessary. We have to remember that play is critical to a child's development and playgrounds are active, creative places to grow. So, take a deep breath and focus on the real risks that cause serious injuries. Otherwise, let your child explore under your supervision. You know your child best. Give playground privileges for which he or she is ready based on physical ability and maturity.

Here are the facts. The good news is that deaths from injuries related to playground equipment are rare, but we need to pay attention to the serious injuries – fractures, burns and head injuries.  More than 200,000 children ages 14 years and younger seek medical care for playground injuries every year:

  1. Five to 9-year-olds visit the emergency room most often for falls on the playground, usually occurring at school or daycare.

  2. Climbers are the leading cause of injuries on public playgrounds, and swings are the leading cause of injuries at home. Swing injuries often occur to children playing near one that is in use.

  3. Fractures, usually of the wrist, lower arm, and elbow, are the most commonly reported injuries for all ages. Monkey bars, especially if they are high, cause some of the most serious arm fractures.

  4. The composition of the playground's undersurface (grass, sand, rubber mat) matters. One study found that children were more likely to sustain a head injury or fracture when falling onto grass compared with sand. Wood chips are even better due to their higher energy-absorbing potential, but the thickness of the chips has to be maintained. Families often make the mistake of neglecting to place or maintain an energy-absorbing surface under backyard equipment.

  5. Playgrounds are one of the most common places where bullying and fights occur.

Here are some tips to follow to help make sure your local community, school playground, or backyard fun zone is safe for your child:

  1. Look for proper protective surfacing that is well-maintained under playground equipment (NOT grass, soil). Loose fill materials that are safer include shredded rubber, mulch, or wood chips.

  2. All elevated surfaces should have guardrails or protective barriers. If the structures are more than 2.5 feet high, they should be at least 9 feet apart from each other.

  3. Plastic climbing equipment should never be used indoors, even when placed on top of heavy carpet. Carpet does not offer enough protection to prevent injuries.

  4. For swings, be sure surfacing extends, in back and front, twice the height of the suspending bar and that swings have a clear space around them.

  5. Make sure elevated surfaces, like platforms and ramps, have guardrails to prevent falls.

  6. Look out for tripping hazards, such as exposed concrete footings, tree stumps, and rocks.

  7. Always check the temperature of the equipment and surfacing before letting your child play to prevent thermal burn, especially on metal slides. Remember, a young child's skin will burn faster than your own. If it feels too hot for your hand, it may be too hot for your child's skin.

The most important tip, though, is that children should be supervised at all times. Playgrounds are wonderful for stimulating creativity and confidence and building social skills, but the risk of potentially serious injuries is real. So turn off your cell phone and watch your child cruise down that slide. Some parents work together on supervision – taking turns with who is in charge of watching the children.

For younger children, you may want to be on the equipment with them. For older children, you want to stay at a healthy distance, only getting involved when there is a potential danger.  Most of the time, supervision will be easy – your child will be calling you to show you what he is doing. Other times, you will see a danger about to happen and will have to intervene and gently guide your child to a different activity, teaching them along the way.

Don't forget that playgrounds are one of the most common sites for bullying and fights. Your active presence will keep the playground the fun place that it is supposed to be. Let children work out most of the situations on their own, but if you see bullying or exclusion of children, let the kids know that this isn't allowed.

Most of the life lessons we learn about how to get along with others, we learn on playgrounds. With your supervision, you'll be able to guide your child through this important learning!

For more on playground safety, check out the Consumer Product Safety Commission website and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Kohl's Safety Center.

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