Playground Safety

Playgrounds are for play - safe play. Yet tragically every year children are injured or killed on playgrounds. How can we ensure our child's safety while she is playing on a playground?

Dr. Patrick Pierse, pediatrician at Edmonton's Grey Nuns Hospital, says, "We physicians treat too many children who suffer broken bones, sprains, and frightening head injuries after their playground play. Many of the injuries could be prevented with supervision, safer surfacing, and equipment. Supervision is a lifeline to preventing disabling or life-threatening injuries or even death. I can't stress enough how important it is to be vigilant when supervising."

Supervision, safe playground surfaces, and safe equipment are the keys to a safer playground. This chapter discusses supervision and safe play, safety on equipment, and prevention for some of the common injuries on playgrounds. For a more extensive look at the topic, I recommend an excellent book entitled "Removing Playground Hazards for Our Children's Sake", published by SAFE KIDS of Alberta and the Alberta Medical Association, much of the following information was taken from this source.

1. Supervision and Safe Play

A two and a half year-old child and two four year-olds died when their heads got caught between a guardrail and the platform of climbing equipment on a public playground. In each of these three cases, the children were either sitting on the platform with their legs dangling over the edge or else they were lying face down on the platform. The children then slid off the platform under the guardrail, got their heads trapped and died by strangulation.

Playground injuries are preventable - supervision is the key. On the playground, all preschoolers and children should be closely and carefully supervised.

  • Check out the playgrounds in your community - shop around until you find one that is safe and be sure that your child is supervised while playing there.

  • Adults should examine not only the playground equipment, but also the grounds themselves - is the area free of used condoms, needles, and other foreign matter that could pose a serious health risk if a child picked it up?

  • Pay special attention to what children wear to the playground and make sure that they are dressed appropriately. Avoid clothing with drawstrings, scarves, ties, or loose clothing. Loose tie strings on hoods and scarves around necks can catch on slides and other play equipment and cause strangulation (See Chapter Three, Choking, Suffocation, Strangulation, and Drowning).

In June 1992, a two and a half year-old child in Alberta strangled to death on a day care slide when her jacket drawstring snagged the top of a slide. Three months later, a six year-old girl in Ontario died the same way.

  • Ensure equipment is appropriate for the children's ages and skills. Make sure your child is not using equipment beyond his or her physical ability.

  • Be alert to badly positioned, unstable equipment and debris in the play area.

  • Regularly examine your child's playground equipment for sharp edges, protrusions, pinch points, and equipment failures. Check equipment regularly for loose bolts, nuts, and clamps.

  • Be aware that equipment in direct sunlight may have hot surfaces.

  • Take the weather into account. Wet hands, shoes, or equipment increases the risk of injury.

  • Examine the protective surfacing under play equipment. The surface should be a shock-absorbing surface such as sand or pea gravel, not concrete, asphalt, or hard-packed dirt.

  • Enforce rules of safe play with your children.

Teach your children these lessons about safety on the playground. A healthy and happy playground experience is more likely if you insist on safe play that includes these simple rules:

  • Wear shoes at all times when outside.

  • Do not run or play with a sucker, a popsicle stick, or food in your mouth.

  • No pushing, shoving, or horseplay on the playground or its equipment.

  • Make room for others.

  • Stay away from the front and back of swings or other moving parts.

  • Keep fingers away from moving parts.

  • Beware: equipment is slippery when wet.

  • Always hold hand grips and rails.

  • Never jump from unsafe heights and always look before jumping.

  • Use slides to slide down; do not walk up slides.

  • Stop younger children from climbing to unsafe heights.

2. Safety Tips for Playground Equipment

A. Slides

  • Use the steps; never climb up the sliding surface or on top of the tunnel.

  • Be sure everyone is out of the way before sliding.

  • Slide down feet first, sitting up, one person at a time.

B. Swings
  • Sit in the center of the seat - never stand or kneel.

  • Hold onto the swing with both hands.

  • Stop the swing before getting off.

  • Only one person at a time on the swing.

  • Never swing empty swings.

  • Stay away from both the front and the back of moving swings.

  • Don't climb the bars of the swing set.

C. Climbing Structures
  • Choose a climber appropriate to your child's level of development. If a child must stand on a box to reach a climber or if that child needs to be lifted, he or she is too small for it.

  • When several children are playing on horizontal bars and ladders, ensure that they start at the same end and move in the same direction, keeping a safe distance between each of them and watching for swinging feet.Hold onto the swing with both hands.

  • No overcrowding is allowed on a climber.

  • Use the proper grip - the thumb should encircle the bar opposite the fingers.

  • Hold on with both hands, except while moving to a new position.

  • No speed contests are allowed on climbers.

  • Don't try to cover a large distance in a single move.

  • To drop, land on your feet with your knees slightly bent.

  • Only play on dry structures.

  • Do not wear loose-fitting clothing while using the climber.

In September 1993, a two year-old severely fractured her skull when she fell off a slide and hit her head on the underlying concrete surface.

3. Falls on the Playground

Nine out of ten serious injuries to children - mainly head injuries and fractures - are caused by falls on playground surfaces. Protective surfacing cannot prevent all injuries from falls, but it can help reduce both the number and seriousness of injuries.

Examine the protective surfacing under all playground equipment. Surfaces should be soft, shock-absorbing, and resilient. Concrete, asphalt, or hard-packed dirt are inappropriate surfaces for playgrounds. Sand or pea gravel can greatly reduce injuries.

A friend of mine was once playing with his young son. He was swinging the boy by the arms as he turned in a circle. As he was doing this he felt a kind of pop which was followed by a very loud scream from his son. The boy was taken to the hospital and X-rays revealed a dislocation of the elbow.

4. Injuries from Arm Swinging

When playing outside with small children, many adults will pick them up by their arms and forcefully swing them around. Most adults will have had this done to them when they were children, and many have done this to a child. Because this is such a common practice, sometimes we fail to realize that injuries can happen from swinging a child by the arms.

A common type of injury due to arm swinging is dislocation of the shoulder or the elbow. When a child is being swung around or picked up by the arms, there is a great deal of force applied to the developing elbows and shoulders. This force may result in the joints popping out of place. The consequences can be especially serious because the child's nerves and arteries can be injured, resulting in permanent damage. To avoid these types of injuries, don't swing children by the arms.

5. Preventing Strangulation on the Playground

Strangulations on playgrounds often result from children getting entangled in playground equipment. Head and neck entrapment is a major cause of strangulation on playgrounds. It typically occurs when a young child's head is placed into an opening, the child's body changes direction, and the child's head cannot be withdrawn. Reversing this kind of incident, we can see when a child's legs pass through an opening and the child's body slips through, the head can become trapped. The result is the same: the child is at risk for strangulation.

Supervise your children. Many strangulation incidents can be eliminated if an alert adult is nearby. Here are some tips for preventing strangulation on playground equipment:

  • Strangulation occurs when a child's clothing gets caught on equipment, often slides or swings. Be especially vigilant with these devices (see Chapter Three, Choking, Suffocation, Strangulation, and Drowning).

  • A child's scarf, mittens, jacket strings, or jacket hood can become trapped in the small gaps between equipment pieces, the tops of slides, on vertical posts and on the connecting links or S-hooks of chains. Dress your child so that her clothing will not get caught on the playground equipment; remove strings and loose parts from children's clothing.

  • Make sure gaps in equipment cannot snare a child's clothing or body. Seal equipment gaps with silicone. Renovate, replace, or discard dangerous pieces of equipment.

  • Children can become entangled in ropes, jump ropes, free-hanging ropes, and leashes either inappropriately attached to equipment, or worn around the child's neck.

  • Although helmets are important pieces of protective equipment, be aware of the dangers of wearing them on the playground. Strangulations have occurred because helmets became trapped between rungs on climbing equipment.

Copyright 1997 Safety Health Publishing Inc.

Martin Lesperance is a fire fighter / paramedic and best selling author of the book "Kids for Keeps: Preventing Injuries to Children". Martin speaks across North America on the topic of injury prevention. His talks are humorous, but still have a strong underlying safety message. For more information, call him at (403) 225 - 2011 or visit his website at