A new report shows that over a 10-year period, more deaths to children occurred on backyard playgrounds than on public playgrounds. There are nearly 150 deaths to children under the age of 15 involving playground equipment; at least 90 of these occurred in a home setting. Almost three-fourths of the deaths in home locations resulted from hangings from ropes, cords, homemade rope swings, and other similar items. New safety standards, aimed at reducing the risk of strangulation, require that ropes be secured at both ends and that makers of home equipment warn against attaching additional ropes.
Playground equipment is also a leading cause of injuries to children. In 1999 alone, it is estimated that there were more than 200,000 playground-equipment injuries, with almost 47,000 injuries on home playgrounds to children under age 15. The proportion of preschool children (younger than age 5) injured on playground equipment was higher on home playgrounds than on playgrounds in general. Almost 40 percent of those injured at home were younger than 5 years, as compared with about 27 percent on other playgrounds.
Playground hazards should be reduced by providing parents with safety information. Parents are encouraged to install and maintain protective surfacing, eliminate unsafe ropes, and check for potentially hazardous hooks and edges on swings and slides on home playgrounds. Only 9 percent of home playgrounds had protective, shock-absorbing surfacing. Dirt and grass, which are the most prevalent surfaces under home playground equipment, do not adequately protect children from serious head injuries.
Accidental injuries involving playground equipment send approximately 200,000 kids each year to the emergency room - and that's just in the United States, where the federal government published safety guidelines for playgrounds more than 25 years ago. Among toddlers ages five and under, the rate of playground accidents has doubled since that time. It's not that the guidelines don't set good standards; it's that an estimated 75 percent of the playgrounds in the country (studied in 2002) don't meet the guidelines.
Most injuries on the playground - 80 percent - result from falls. These injuries range from minor cuts and scrapes to serious head and spine trauma. A proper protective surface under the play equipment can make the difference between life and death.
Obviously, asphalt and concrete are lousy surfaces, but so are grass and soil. Ideally, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the ground should be covered with shredded rubber, hardwood mulch or fine sand, piled at least 12 inches deep and extending at least six feet in all directions from the equipment.
The federal guidelines also say playground equipment should be labeled to indicate any age restrictions or recommendations. Toddlers and their play equipment should be kept in a separate area, fenced off from equipment designed for bigger kids.
School playgrounds are a special area of concern, because three out of four playground injuries suffered by children ages 5 to 14 occur on public property, not on backyard play equipment. In fact, playground accidents are the leading cause of injury to elementary school children. Take a look at the playground at your child's school and, if necessary, discuss it with school authorities.
Even if the play area is as safe as it can be, parents and caregivers still have a challenge to keep children from accidental injuries. Each year, for example, several children die from airway obstruction, or strangulation, when a piece of loose clothing or jewelry gets caught on equipment or the child's head gets stuck between climbing bars. Prevention is simple: Don't allow your child to wear clothing with a hood or neck drawstrings - or any other loose clothing, scarves, helmets, necklaces or purses, for that matter - on the playground. Stay alert for kids getting caught in the bars or chains of playground equipment, and watch for any pushing, shoving or crowding around equipment.
There's no substitute for active supervision. Simply being in the same place as your child isn't necessarily "supervising" - you need to keep your kids in sight and within reach at all times and give them your undivided attention on the playground.
Learn first aid and take a refresher class every two years, in case a child does fall or get stuck in play equipment. But if you choose your playground carefully and keep a close watch on your child, you may never need to use these skills.
To help prevent injuries from falls and other hazards on home playgrounds, the following safety tips are recommended:
- Install and maintain at least 9 inches of wood chips, mulch, or shredded rubber for play equipment up to 7 feet high. If sand or pea gravel is used, install at least a 9-inch layer for play equipment up to 5 feet high. Or, use surfacing mats made of safety-tested rubber or rubber-like materials.
- Install protective surfacing at least 6 feet in all directions from play equipment. For swings, the surface should extend, in back and front, twice the height of the suspending bar.
- Never attach ropes, jump ropes, clotheslines, or pet leashes to the equipment. This can present a serious strangulation hazard to children.
- Smooth sharp points or edges, and cover open "S" hooks or protruding bolts.
- Check for openings in guardrails or between ladder rungs. Spaces should be either less than 3 1/2 inches or more than
- 9 inches so that they don't present an entrapment hazard.
- Always supervise young children to make sure they are safe.