Accidents happen -- especially at playgrounds, where 200,000 children every year suffer serious injuries. Read on to make sure your child plays it safe.

By Hal Karp
December 09, 2013

Last spring, Grace Weisberg and her 4-year-old son, Jeremy, went to a Dallas playground for an afternoon of fun. After watching her son play for an hour, Weisberg said it was time to leave. Jeremy obediently started to climb down the circular ladder. He was six feet off the ground when he suddenly lost his grip and fell backward. His mother watched in horror as Jeremy's head smacked against a metal bar and he tumbled to the ground with a sickening thud.

As onlookers ran toward them, Weisberg dragged her little boy away from the structure and cradled him in her lap. Blood poured from Jeremy's scalp, soaking her white blouse. He was crying hysterically, but at least he was conscious.

With the help of another mother, Weisberg loaded Jeremy into her car and drove to the nearest hospital. E.R. doctors took X rays and stitched up Jeremy's scalp. After observing him for the rest of the day, they sent Jeremy -- and his very relieved mom -- home. "I was afraid he'd cracked his skull," Weisberg says. "We were very lucky."

Many of the 200,000-plus children treated in emergency rooms for playground accidents each year aren't as lucky. Broken bones are the most common injuries, but they're far from the worst: Each year about 15 children die from strangulation and head wounds suffered at playgrounds -- places where our kids are supposed to be safe.

There Oughta Be a Law

A hefty stack of studies points to one conclusion: America's playgrounds put our kids at risk. "Many of these deaths and injuries are preventable," says Rachel Weintraub, assistant general counsel at the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), a Washington, D.C., consumer-advocacy group."We need mandatory federal standards."

Most parents agree. In a recent Parents poll, 82 percent of the 1,000 respondents said the U.S. government should mandate playground-safety standards. For now, it's up to parents to educate themselves about the dangers.

The curriculum might begin with an honest self-assessment: Poor adult supervision is a factor in nearly half of all playground injuries. Too many parents treat jungle gyms as babysitters, and it's common to allow children under 5 to play on equipment designed for school-age kids. "If he can't reach the structure by himself, he shouldn't be on it," says Susan Hudson, Ph.D., education director of the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), a playground-safety and injury-prevention resource based in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

As Weisberg can attest, even following such guidelines -- and watching at close range -- won't eliminate the risk of your child's being harmed. But it will certainly reduce it. So will giving your playground a thorough safety inspection on each visit. These are the hazards to look for.

Shoddy Surfacing

The danger: More than two thirds of injuries occur when kids tumble from equipment, so proper cushioning material -- at least 12 inches of poured rubber matting, wood chips, shredded tires, bark mulch, wood fibers, pea gravel, or sand -- makes the safest landing. Just one out of four playgrounds surveyed in 2002 by the CFA and the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) had ample and proper surfacing. Among the unsafe materials used: grass, soil, and asphalt.

The checkup: Bring a ruler to make sure the shock-absorbing surface is at least one foot deep. Look for loose material that may have shifted, especially underneath swings. Also, check for proper fall-zone protection: Equipment should be bordered by six feet of surfacing in every direction.

Faulty Construction

The danger: One out of three playgrounds examined by safety experts had protruding bolts or sharp edges that could harm a child. Moreover, if the metal S-hooks that link a swing with a chain have excessive space between them, a child could catch her clothing and be injured while jumping off.

The checkup: Examine equipment for exposed hardware and rough edges, especially beneath platforms where children play. For swing S-hooks, try to slide a credit card or a piece of cardboard into the opening. If it fits, the opening is too wide.

Harmful Heights

The danger: Equipment eight feet or taller provides big thrills for youngsters -- and potentially menacing spills. A recent study found that these structures have three times the injury rate of those less than that height. Think about this the next time your preschooler begs to use the big-boy slide: Tumbling from a ten-foot-high jungle gym is like falling from a second-story window.

The checkup: Playground equipment should be no higher than six feet for preschoolers and eight feet for school-age children. Also avoid swing sets with top bars that exceed eight feet.

Strangulation Hazards

The danger: Spaces between guard-rails measuring between three and a half and nine inches can trap a child's head or neck and cause strangulation. A recent national survey found one out of three playgrounds endangers kids in this way.

The checkup: Measure all suspicious spacing to make sure gaps are either narrower than three and a half inches or wider than nine inches. "The guideline is there for a reason, and it's not something you can simply gauge with your eye," says Susan Craine, consumer advocate at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), a statewide consumer-advocacy organization.

Decay and Disrepair

The danger: Rusted hardware, broken or loose parts, missing ladder or bridge rungs, and splintering wood can all harm your child. Poorly maintained playgrounds may also be littered with broken glass and germ-spreading garbage.

The checkup: When you first arrive, give the entire area a thorough examination. If you spot decrepit equipment or overflowing rubbish, call your local parks department at once. And never let your child run around the area barefoot; if it's sprinkler season, bring along water shoes.

Arsenic and lead poisoning

The danger: One out of seven playgrounds inspected by CFA/U.S. PIRG used wood that may have been treated with chromium copper arsenate (CCA), a preservative/insecticide that contains arsenic. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, young children who touch and then ingest CCA at playgrounds are at increased risk of developing bladder or lung cancer later in life. Although manufacturers phased out arsenic-treated lumber in 2002, equipment built with this wood remains widespread. For playground structures that have been in place since 1977, lead paint is another potential health hazard. Lead poisoning causes brain damage, behavioral and developmental disorders, and seizures.

The checkup: Assume all wooden structures contain arsenic, unless they were built within the last year. If you don't have another playground option, make sure that your child never eats there and that she washes her hands thoroughly as soon as you leave. If you notice peeling paint, ask the park's caretaker how old the equipment is and whether it's been tested for lead-paint exposure.

Unsafe swings

The danger: Almost half of all swing sets inspected by CFA/U.S. PIRG violated the organizations' safety recommendations. The most common problems: wood or metal seats, which can harm kids who are accidentally hit while walking past; having three or more swings located in the same bay; and placing swings less than two feet apart.

The checkup: Look for swings made out of soft, pliable rubber; measure swings that seem too close together; and request that the parks department eliminate triple swings. Also report instances where a toddler swing and a regular swing are next to each another. "Older children take more risks with swings, such as twirling and going side to side," NYPIRG's Craine says. "A toddler whose swing is in the same bay could easily get hit."

Obsolete equipment

The danger: One third of all public playgrounds contain outdated -- and hazardous -- structures. Metal or molded-plastic "animal" swings, which weigh as much as 80 pounds, have caused serious wounds and even killed children who were struck in the head as they walked past. Likewise, exercise rings and trapeze bars can cause severe impact injuries. And rope swings pose a strangulation risk.

The checkup: If you find any of this equipment, insist that the playground's caretaker remove it immediately. Also keep an eye out for other old equipment that's made of heavy, rigid plastic or metal.

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