This article originally appeared in the August 11, 2008, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
It’s about time for school to start, and most families have made the annual trek to shop for clothing and school supplies. Before your child heads back to school, however, there’s probably time for a couple more trips to the playground.
In hot weather, like we’ve seen over the past few weeks, playground surfaces can get well into the triple-digit temperatures that can burn your child’s skin. Even plastic slides and swings can get dangerously hot. Several children across the country, including two St. Louis-area toddlers, have been burned this summer when they touched a hot surface at the playground. These burns are painful, of course, and they can lead to blisters and infection.
Before allowing your child to play on any equipment, be sure to test the temperature by touching the surface with your bare hand. If it’s too hot to comfortably rest your hand on a swing or slide, then it’s too hot for your child’s legs, feet and hands. Beyond burns, there are several other dangers that lurk at the playground. While it may seem symptomatic of a culture that some feel has become too protective, statistics say the playground can be a perilous place. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that more than 200,000 injuries occur each year on public and backyard playgrounds. Many of these injuries could have been prevented with proper supervision.
You can make the playground a place that's entertaining and safe for your child by checking equipment for potential hazards and following some simple safety guidelines.
Young children (and sometimes older ones) can't always gauge distances properly and aren't capable of foreseeing dangerous situations by themselves. Older children often love to test their limits on the playground, so it's important for an adult to be there to help them exercise good judgment, and to help give first aid when they don’t.
Safe playground equipment and adult supervision are extremely important, but it's only half of the equation: Kids must know how to be safe and act responsibly at the playground.
Here are some general rules to teach your child:
• Never push or roughhouse while on jungle gyms, slides, seesaws, swings, and other equipment.
• Use equipment properly - slide feet first, don't climb outside guardrails, no standing on swings, etc.
• If you jump off equipment, make sure that you check to make sure that there are no other children are in the way. When you jump, land on both feet with knees slightly bent.
• Leave bikes, backpacks, and bags away from the equipment and the area where you're playing so that no one trips over them and falls.
• Playground equipment should never be used if it is wet because moisture causes the surface to be slippery.
• Don't wear clothes with drawstrings or other strings at the playground. Drawstrings, purses, and necklaces could get caught on equipment and accidentally strangle a child.
• Wear sunscreen when playing outside even on cloudy days so that you don't get sunburned.
Safe Swings, Seesaws, Slides, and Climbing Equipment
Because swings, slides, and climbing equipment are so different from one another, they each require a different set of safety considerations. And there are some kinds of equipment that are not safe for playgrounds, no matter how careful your child is.
Swings are the most frequent source of childhood injuries from moving equipment on a playground. But a few simple precautions should keep your child safely swinging in the breeze:
• Swings should be made of soft material such as rubber or plastic, not wood or metal.
• Your child should always sit in the swing, not stand or kneel. Your child should hold on tightly with both hands while swinging, and when finished swinging, he or she should stop the swing completely before getting off.
• Children should stay a safe distance from other children on swings, being careful not to run or walk in front of or in back of moving swings.
• Kids should never ride with more than one child to a swing. Swings are designed to safely hold only one person.
Because seesaw use requires cooperation between children, they are generally not recommended for preschoolers unless the seesaw has a spring-centering device to prevent abrupt contact with the ground. Regardless of design, both seesaws and merry-go-rounds should be approached with caution. Other safety tips to keep in mind include:
• Seesaw seats are like swings: one child per seat. If your child is too light to seesaw with a partner, he or she should find a different partner - not add another child to the same side of the seesaw.
• Kids should always sit facing one another, not turned around.
• Teach your child to hold on tightly with both hands while on a seesaw, not to touch the ground or push off with his or her hands, and to keep feet to the sides, out from underneath the seesaw.
• Kids should stand back from a seesaw when it's in use. They should never stand beneath a raised seesaw, stand and rock in the middle, or try to climb onto it while it's in motion.
Slides are safe if kids are careful when using them. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
• Children should take one step at a time and hold onto the handrail when climbing the ladder to the top of the slide. They should not climb up the slide itself to get to the top.
• Your child should always slide down feet first and sitting up, never head first on his back or stomach.
• Only one child should be on the slide platform at a time, and kids shouldn't slide down in groups.
• Your child should always check that the bottom of the slide is clear before sliding down. When he or she reaches the bottom of the slide, he or she should get off and move away from the end of the slide so it's clear for other kids to slide down.
Climbing Equipment Safety
Climbing equipment comes in many shapes and sizes - including rock climbing walls, arches, and vertical and horizontal ladders. It's generally more challenging for kids than other kinds of playground equipment. Be sure your child is aware of a safe way down in case he or she can't complete the climb. The highest rates of injuries on public playgrounds are associated with climbing equipment, which can be dangerous if not designed or used properly.
Children who are younger than the age 5 years may not have the upper body strength necessary for climbing and should only be allowed to climb on age-appropriate equipment. Preschoolers should only climb 5 feet high and school-age children should only climb 7 feet high.
Visiting the playground should remain a part of your child’s activities, even after school starts. Doing so safely can spell the difference between healthy exercise and a trip to the ER.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a children's medical question, click here.