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Take a few precautions and play it safe

Playground accidents cause serious injuries and even death each year. Parents, however, can improve their child's odds.

Every year, more than 200,000 kids ages 2 to 12 go to hospital emergency rooms with playground injuries.

Most of the severe injuries are from falls. Serious injury occurs to heads, arms and hands. Fractures account for about a third of the injuries. As many as 17 children are killed in playground accidents every year.

Parents need not take these statistics lying down. There are plenty of things parents can do to reduce the likelihood of playground accidents, say the experts. Along with providing softer surfaces for falls, keeping a closer eye on kids is probably the most important safeguard.

"We think it is most important that parents supervise children. Playground equipment will not supervise children," says Donna Thompson, director of the National Program for Playground Safety at the University of Northern Iowa.

Knowing and not overestimating your child's physical abilities will also help prevent injuries, she says.

"Often parents put children on playground equipment that is not right for their child's age or abilities," Thompson says.

She estimates that 40 percent of playground accidents could be prevented if children were supervised on playgrounds to the same extent they are in the classroom: one adult for every 20-plus kids.

"Whenever a child tries to use the play structure in a way different from its intended use, the risk of injury is greatly increased," says Louis Bowers, wellness and sports studies professor at the University of South Florida and an adviser to the National Program for Playground Safety.

Ideal playgrounds?

Can there be an "ideal" playground? Bowers thinks there can and should be.

"An ideal playground is one in which children of differing ages, sizes and abilities can play creatively and safely," he says. "Children need to explore, discover, gain mastery of and create new movements of their bodies. Large muscle activity through play is not a luxury, but a necessity."

Ideally, a playground would allow that development without exposing children to danger and injury. For example, Bowers says metal and wood swing seats are hazardous; swings account for 39 percent of all playground injuries. Replace those seats with a softer material.

Equipment should have no rough or jagged edges. Any equipment at risk for falling over should be stabilized. Standing water and holes in playground surfaces are no-nos.

Bowers warns parents away from trampolines for any age at public playgrounds. Asphalt, concrete or packed dirt should not be under any climbing surface.

No safety standard

If you think there is some government agency that bullies playground owners and schools into complying with some standard of safety or a maintenance schedule, there isn't.

Because there are no national or state agencies monitoring playgrounds or policing equipment manufacturers, Thompson advocates the voluntary SAFE system _ supervision, age-appropriate design, falls to cushioned surfaces and equipment maintenance _ to help prevent injuries.

Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thompson's organization is working with the American Society for Testing and Materials and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to develop voluntary standards and guidelines for safer playground equipment.

The American Society for Testing and Materials publishes technical documents and reports for use by playground equipment engineers, manufacturers and maintenance staff. The information includes performance specifications for playground equipment. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal agency, publishes a handbook on playground equipment, surfaces and equipment maintenance.

"There are no mandatory standards, and I don't think there ever will be," Thompson says, adding that safety often improves only with lawsuits. As a case in point, she cited the injuries and subsequent lawsuits involving small trampolines. The lawsuits have made them vanish from schools. "It would be a shame to see something similar happen with playground equipment," she says.

Parents working together can make a difference, however. In a suburb of Pittsburgh, an early 1990s grass-roots effort led by Susan DeFrancesco, now a faculty member at the Center for Injury and Policy Research at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, did get local laws for playground safety passed. DeFrancesco says theirs may be the only local playground safety ordinances in the nation.

"Advocacy doesn't have to come from grass-roots, but often it must because the owners and operators neglect their responsibilities," she says.

Different weather, different risks

Will happy hours on the playground, under the sun, raise your child's long-term risk of skin cancer? Dermatologists say that children get 80 percent of their lifetime sun exposure by age 18 and that a child born in 1999 has a one in five chance of developing the deadly skin disease. They say sun protection needs to be built into outdoor play, whether by sunscreen or, better, a sun shield like the one constructed over a whole playground on Staten Island, N.Y.

Expected to serve as a national model, the tarplike covering shields the playground's equipment from the dazzling and harmful rays of the sun.

On the other hand, when the weather gets cooler and children wear hooded sweat shirts and jackets, accidental strangulation on the playground becomes a real threat.

Dorothy Drago, an independent safety consultant, says that the drawstrings on children's hooded clothing can get snagged in the gaps in playground equipment, especially at the top of sliding boards. As the child descends the slide, the drawstring tightens.

"The child comes to an abrupt stop midslide as the drawstring pulls taut," Drago says. "This causes the jacket or sweat shirt to tighten about the neck."

Drago says strangulation deaths and many serious injuries have occurred this way. She notes that in Great Britain, drawstrings were eliminated from children's hooded outerwear by law in 1976.

"Hoods, scarves _ any loose, flowing clothing _ can snag and cause strangulation," Drago says. "Kids should have no strings attached."

Find the National Program for Playground Safety on the Web at http://www.uni.edu/playground or call (800) 554-7529. The ASTM's standards are available by writing the National Recreation and Park Association, Publications Center, 22377 Belmont Ridge Road, Ashburn, VA 20148; (703) 858-2190.

_ Randolph Fillmore is a freelance writer based in Temple Terrace.

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