Let's get the scary stats out of the way first. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger are treated in U.S. emergency departments every year for playground-related injuries. Hazards include falls; entanglement in ropes, leashes or clothing; and impact from equipment tip-over or structural failure.
Before you wrap your little ones up in cotton wool – or worse, ban them from the playground altogether – remember: Accidents do happen. But there's a lot you can do to prevent them.
According to Dr. S. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, educating yourself about playground safety is vital. And it's equally important to pass the information on to your kids — using age-appropriate language — before you get to the park. "It's better to teach proactively rather than reactively," Ganjian tells SheKnows. "That way, your children will know what to look out for so you don't have to constantly yell at them when they are doing the wrong thing."
Follow these expert guidelines on playground safety to ensure your kids leave the playground with fun memories and not broken bones.
Wear the right clothes
Playground safety begins with your child wearing the right clothing. Go for closed-toe shoes and avoid laces that could loosen and get trapped in equipment. Loose clothing can also catch on equipment and cause falls or strangulation risks. Remove your kids' bicycle helmets before they play, as helmets can lead to head entrapment in tight spaces.
Set some ground rules
"Before you let your kids step foot on the playground, be sure to lay out some ground rules," Dr. Gina Posner, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells SheKnows. "Your rules might include taking turns, using equipment properly and keeping their hands to themselves."
Keep it age-appropriate
The safest playground for your child is one that's geared toward their age group. "Always check out the age recommendations for the play equipment you let your little one explore," advises Posner. For smaller kids, choose playgrounds that have a separate play area for younger children, and remember that playgrounds with soft floors are better at absorbing the shock of a fall.
However much you want to join in the fun, don't be tempted to take young kids down a slide on your lap. According to Posner, kids frequently catch a leg or other body part underneath the parent, leading to injury.
Do a quick recon
As soon as you arrive at the playground, give it a quick once over. Check that the path to and from the play equipment is clear of hazards. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, elevated surfaces like platforms and ramps should have guardrails to prevent falls, play structures more than 30 inches high should be spaced at least 9 feet apart, and surfaces around playground equipment should have at least 12 inches of wood chips, mulch, sand or pea gravel or be mats made of rubber or rubberlike materials.
On the playground itself, check for broken equipment and chipping or peeling paint, and advise your kiddos to steer clear of anything potentially harmful. The CPSC's finding on lead poisoning hazard for young children on public playground equipment encouraged cities to replace lead-based paint, but you should still keep an eye on kids under 6 years old to avoid ingestion of poisonous chips and dust.
Keep your eyes open
Your kids might be happy to be left to their own devices on the playground, but that doesn't mean you don't need to supervise them. "The single most important tip I can give is to always watch your child," says Posner. "You don’t have to hover, but you should not be looking at your phone or distracted. Kids can get hurt anywhere, but if you see your child doing something that might be risky, you need to be able to stop it immediately."
Watch the weather
A warm day may seem to present the perfect opportunity to visit the playground, but the combination of heat and metal equipment can end in tears. "Touch the equipment before allowing your child to go on," suggests Ganjian. "Sometimes, the sun can increase the temperature so much it causes children's skin to burn." To be safe, avoid bare metal slides and steps completely and go for playgrounds with plenty of shaded or covered areas. If you're heading to the playground after rain, watch out for puddles and stagnant water — according to KidsHealth from Nemours, it takes less than 1 inch of water for a small child to drown.
Know your child's limits
You can encourage your child to be adventurous without putting them at risk. The key is to know their limits, says Posner. Make sure they're using the equipment how it was intended to be used, and consider it a good general rule that if they're jumping off a high play structure, you should probably stop them.
Remember these tips, and you and your kids can enjoy your time on the playground — and keep out of the emergency room.