About 200,000 children are treated in the country's emergency rooms each year for playground injuries. In fact, according to the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), one child is hurt every 2 ? minutes. New equipment continues to get safer, meeting improved recommendations. But a 2002 investigation of 1,037 playgrounds in 36 states by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) found that most playgrounds still pose safety threats because equipment is outdated or broken.
Although there aren't mandated national safety standards for playgrounds, some schools, recreation departments, and city councils abide by guidelines from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and American Society for Testing and Materials. They make a difference: A new study found that a North Carolina law requiring playgrounds at childcare centers to follow the CPSC guidelines cut injuries by 22%. Fourteen other states (Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia) and many cities have passed laws addressing playground safety.
What You Can Do
Know the local laws. Check with the park and recreation department, school superintendent, or state attorney general's consumer-protection office to see if your city's playgrounds are subject to CPSC guidelines. Be sure to get the details -- for instance, does the law apply only to newly constructed playgrounds? Ask these local authorities for recommendations on the safest playgrounds to visit.
Rule out school playgrounds for children 4 and under. They're designed for school-age kids who are taller, have bigger hands, and possess more strength and coordination. "If you take a toddler to a school playground, you're going to end up putting him on inappropriate equipment," says Donna Thompson, NPPS director. So exactly what's a no-no for the under-5 crowd? Chain or cable walks, monkey bars, seesaws, log rolls, long spiral slides, overhead rings, arch climbers, chain or net climbers, balance beams, cable walks, dome climbers, parallel bars, track rides, and vertical sliding poles. Plus, school playgrounds likely won't have tot swings -- the type appropriate for kids under 4.
Perform your own inspections. Check out the playgrounds yourself -- ideally, before you bring your child. The most critical component: a cushy ground surface, since 79% of injuries are fall-related. Look for nine to 12 inches of sand, pea gravel, wood products, rubber products, or mats. Walk away if you see cement, asphalt, dirt, or grass: These surfaces are linked to head injuries.
Next, examine the equipment for gaps between three and nine inches (where a child's head could get stuck), hot surfaces, pinch points, sharp edges, and catch points like protruding bolts or gaps (where zippers or clothing might get caught). Also check the space between pieces; you want a "fall zone" of at least six feet for most standardized equipment. If the playground has tire swings, look for a hole at the bottom that allows water to drain; otherwise, they're likely to breed mosquitoes. Finally, the CFA/PIRG investigation found that 58% of playgrounds had climbers or slides that were too high for kids. The right size: no higher than four feet for preschoolers and six feet for older kids. They should also have guardrails to prevent falls.
Take extra care with wooden equipment. Chances are, it's been treated with chromated copper arsenate, a pesticide that the EPA will ban by the end of the year. CPSC data show that this chemical raises a child's lifetime cancer risk: Out of a million kids, between two and 100 will contract cancer as a result of this pesticide. Parents can't visually determine if wooden playgrounds have been treated. CSPC's advice: Wash your child's hands often and don't give her food while she's playing, since the extra risk stems from hand-to-mouth contact. The agency is studying sealants that can prevent arsenic from leaching.
Skip the drawstring pants. Also have your child avoid jackets with hoods, jewelry, jump ropes, and bicycle helmets, all of which can get tangled in playground equipment. It happens: CSPC found that there were 79 accidents, including 23 deaths, in a 15-year period from unintentional strangulation. And to help prevent falls, have your child wear rubber-soled shoes.