When I started taking my son, Noah, to the local playground, I was never more than a step behind him. Now that he's 2 1/2 and I have a second baby, I can't follow him as closely. In some ways that's a good thing: Park visits let him develop skills and learn to take risks. Still, I can't stop worrying -- which is also a good thing. "Toddlers require close supervision to avoid injuries," explains Seth Scholer, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, in Nashville. The trick is knowing what's safe and what's not, and learning to protect your child while letting him use up some of that endless energy.
Playgrounds typically have structures designed for children ages 2 to 5 and ages 5 to 12. However, they aren't always grouped together by age category or separated by a gate. If your child starts playing in an area that's too advanced for her, gently take her hand and guide her to where she belongs, perhaps explaining why another piece of equipment might be more fun for her. "If she tries to go back again, say, 'We can either play here or we can go home. What would you like to do?'" suggests Cheryl Erwin, coauthor of the Positive Discipline series. With a young toddler, simply pick her up and carry her to the right area.
Even little-kid equipment may not be suitable for a 1-year-old, as it's rare to find a playground designed for kids under 2. Keep these pointers in mind.
Jungle gyms Once your child is steady on his feet, he can practice on a mini version with small steps and guardrails. Avoid anything taller than 4 feet; a fall from beyond that height could cause a serious injury.
Monkey bars These shouldn't be in a little-kid playground -- and if they are, avoid them, says Karen Sheehan, M.D., medical director of the Injury Prevention and Research Center at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. Your toddler doesn't yet have the upper-body strength to hang from things.
Slide Start with a small one that has a gentle slope, and hold your toddler's torso as she descends. Stay away from steep slides that let her build up too much speed. Having her ride down on your lap is also a no-no: If her leg gets caught and twists, the increased momentum could cause a fracture.
Swings Stick to toddler-friendly bucket swings (which eliminate falls) until your child approaches age 3. At that point he may be ready to try a regular one. Stand next to him, since he may not be used to holding on (at least at first). Also watch to see that he doesn't walk into the path of another swinging child and get hit.
Sandbox It's best to keep your toddler out of the box. Little kids may put sandy hands in their mouth, and the contents can be pretty nasty. Unless a sandbox is covered at night, animals may use it as a litter box, and those without proper drainage can collect standing water and become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and bacteria, says Dr. Sheehan. At the least, inspect to see that it's clear of feces and broken glass before letting your kid dive in. If possible, have her clean her hands with soap and water; otherwise, use wipes -- and once she turns 2, switch to an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
More than 200,000 kids are treated in the E.R. for playground injuries every year, and a faulty structure is often the culprit. In her 2013 study, Dr. Sheehan found that 42 percent of playgrounds in her city had poorly anchored and unstable gear. Before letting your child use an apparatus, she advises that you shake it to see that it doesn't rattle, inspect for broken parts, check wood for splinters, and look for knobs that could trap loose clothing.
For a toddler, the playground is like the Wild West -- full of older kids who are all too happy to shove their way to get down the slide first. Stay alongside your 1-year-old to make sure he's not being bullied. By the time he's 2 1/2, you can step back and have him attempt to work things out. Try role-playing at home. "If another kid is doing something he doesn't like, teach him to use a firm voice and tell him to stop," suggests Dr. Scholer. Have him come to you if the problem persists. In most cases, if another child is acting aggressively your best move is to bring your toddler to another area.
Although it may be tempting to sit on a bench and chat with a friend while you watch your toddler play, you need to shadow her all the time. A child this age can wander out of sight (or into trouble) within seconds. As she becomes more comfortable on the equipment, it's fine to stand back. But continue to spot her whenever she climbs. Striking a balance between keeping your kid safe and letting her learn what her body can do will help her develop the confidence to navigate the playground independently by the time she heads to preschool.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Parents magazine.