Playing It Safe

Playing It Safe

Summertime playground fun is best when serious injuries are avoided

By Nancy Maes

Public playgrounds can be some of the best places to play, but they also have the potential for being the worst. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 200,000 youngsters are injured on playgrounds every year. The children aren’t simply scraping their knees and elbows and in need of the quick fix of a Band-Aid and a kiss from a parent. They are suffering from broken bones, internal injuries and concussions that require trips to the emergency room.

The disturbing fact is that approximately 40 percent of these injuries happen because parents or caregivers are perhaps busy chatting with friends, reading a book or maybe talking on their cell phones or glued to the screens of their smartphones reading and sending text messages instead of keeping their eyes on their children playing on the swings and slides and climbing equipment.

“I think it’s safe to say that parents have so much to worry about, and when they take their kids to the park, sometimes they just need a break, so it’s easy for them to get distracted and not pay attention to what their kids are doing, but they need to be reminded that they need to supervise their children all the time,” says Karen Sheehan, MD, medical director of the Lurie Children’s Injury Prevention and Research Center that launched a playground-safety program about a decade ago.

Sheehan points out that it’s important for parents to find the right balance when supervising their children, based on their age and developmental stage. “You should probably be following your 2-year-old around the playground because they don’t have very good coordination, and they’re not very strong,” she says. Children between the ages of 2 and 5 should use the pint-sized play equipment designed especially for the abilities of their age group rather than venturing onto the part of the playground created for older kids where they could get seriously injured.

Parents don’t need to supervise older children quite so closely. “You want to make sure they are using the equipment correctly, but you can give your 10-year-old a little more freedom because a little risk-taking within limits is fine,” says Sheehan.

Grown-ups should also make sure their children aren’t wearing drawstrings, scarves, jewelry or anything else around their necks or on their bodies or clothing that could get caught on the equipment or strangle the child. And while helmets keep kids safe when they’re riding their bikes, the wearing of large protective headgear can be hazardous on the playground where a child’s head might get stuck in openings in the equipment. Adults can also look for any protruding nails, bolts or hooks on equipment that might catch on children’s clothes or scratch them.

Since falls are the most common cause of injuries on playgrounds, parents should look for grounds with safe, soft surfaces, such as wood chips or rubber that will cushion a fall, as opposed to ones with a hard surface like cement that can cause serious injury. Finding a safe playground in Chicago is becoming much easier since the Chicago Park District launched the Chicago Plays! program in 2013 to rebuild, repair and/or refurbish 300 playgrounds in the city within five years. More than 150 were re-done in 2013 and 2014, and another 77 are underway this year.

In spite of all the cautionary advice, playing on playgrounds has undeniable benefits. “With obesity being such a big issue today, playgrounds are great for physical exercise,” Sheehan says. She points out that playgrounds help to develop a child’s strength and fine-tune motor skills by letting children discover different ways of experiencing their bodies in motion. Well-designed playgrounds also offer unlimited possibilities for imaginative play, whether it be having pretend tea parties in a cozy space or fighting imaginary pirates from atop the climbing equipment.

Sheehan says, “We don’t want to take all the fun out of playing on a playground; we just want to prevent serious injuries.”