Even in this age of digital this and social media that, children still love to play the old-fashioned way: swinging, bouncing, sliding and climbing their way into adventures in backyards, playgrounds and amusement parks. But all that outdoor fun can come with risks, and we're not talking about sunburns. While you're slathering on the sunscreen, take a minute to check out potential dangers posed by beloved kids' attractions and what you can do to keep them safe.
Inflatable Bounce Houses
Bounce houses are fun...until they become airborne. In recent years, there have been reports of at least two bounce houses being picked up by winds and sent flying, injuring people inside. But reports of bounce house-related injuries, in general, are much more common than that. A 2012 study found that, in the U.S., at least 31 children suffered injuries while playing in inflatable bounce houses every day and the number of kids injured has shot up in recent years. Does that mean it's time to ban bouncing for your own child? Not necessarily. Tracy Mehan of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Ohio's Nationwide Children’s Hospital, said the best way to keep your child safe in a bounce house is to limit the occupancy to one and make sure he or she is supervised by an adult trained in bounce house safety. Bouncing by one's self may be lonely, but it also eliminates the risk of breaking a bone by bumping into another person. If going it alone isn't an option, make sure that the children in the bounce house are about the same age and size. And, given the risks posed by wind, check to make sure the bounce house is securely staked down and that the weather is appropriate, adds Jennifer Hoekstra, an injury prevention specialist at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Michigan. "A nice summer day without a massive storm on the rise or major breezes," she said, is a good day to jump into the fun.
Backyard trampolines may be all the rage, but they're as or more dangerous than bounce houses, at least according to recent statistics. A March, 2014 study found that just under 300,000 people, most of them children, headed to hospitals to be treated for broken bones related to trampoline use over the course of a decade. The American Academy of Pediatrics urges families to avoid all recreational trampoline use, whether the trampolines are in backyards or trampoline parks. Still planning on letting your little jumping bean have her fun? Mehan offers these precautions: ban all flips and other stunts, allow use only with adult supervision, make sure supporting bars, strings and surrounding landing surfaces all have protective padding and, as with bounce houses, limit the trampoline bouncing to one person at a time. Hoekstra adds that there's a bright side to solo trampoline time: "It's a great way to teach skills about sharing and taking turns."
Related: More safety tips
Backyard Play Structures
Don't let your quaint backyard swing set lull you into a false sense of safety, warns Hoekstra. "We're less likely as parents to feel the need to be right there because it's our own backyard," she said. "We're often more lax in our supervision, which leads to a higher risk of injury." While swings, when used appropriately, are fairly safe, the twisting and jumping kids like to do can lead to serious injuries. Other backyard play structure injuries come from falling off monkey bars -- hello broken bones! -- and landing roughly after a ride down a slide. Adult supervision can indeed prevent many of these injuries, as can a firm set of rules, like "No going down the slide head-first!" But don't forget to make sure that your backyard play structure has the proper padding around it -- mulch, sand, rubber or wood chips provide far more effective cushioning for small bodies than plain old grass. (Mehan recommends that padding materials be 12 inches deep.) Looking to avoid collisions between kids on swings and kids nearby? Hoekstra suggests using chalk or colored wood chips to mark a border so children know how closely they can safely play near their swinging friends.
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Public playgrounds, no doubt, have gotten safer over the years, with injury-magnet jungle gyms giving way to shorter structures with railings, padding and age-specific designs. Nonetheless, injuries are still common, with an average of 24 kids being treated in U.S. emergency rooms for playground accidents every hour, Mehan said. Keep your children safe at public playgrounds by taking them to structures designed for their ages and abilities while staying away from equipment that has rust, cracks, rotten areas, and loose or missing parts. As with backyard play structures, make sure your child is playing on a surface with proper padding like mulch or shredded rubber. On warm days, check equipment surfaces to ensure they're hot enough to cause burns. Don't let children add strings, ropes or pet leashes to equipment because those can lead to strangulation. And make sure your child's own attire is appropriate for playground fun: bike helmets, drawstrings and jewelry should be removed while closed-toe shoes are the best shoes for play.
Those coin-operated mechanical cars and horses at your shopping mall seem harmless enough, but they can lead to serious injuries. "Because these are often placed over hard surfaces and many do not have working child restraints, children fall out, often head first, onto a hard surface. This can lead to serious head and neck injuries including concussions," Mehan said. If your child's first-choice ride is over a hard, unpadded surface or lacks a working safety restraint, save your quarter and choose something else. The same goes for when junior refuses to keep his seat belt on. "If your child will not keep the restraint in place or buckled, find a different activity," Mehan said.
Related: More safety tips.
Amusement Park Rides
What summer vacation is complete without a trip to an amusement park? It comes as no surprise, of course, that injuries do happen there, with frightening roller coaster accidents sometimes making news. But it's not just those occasional headline-grabbing accidents that can leave riders in a world of pain. Between May and September each year, an average of 20 children are treated for amusement ride-related injuries every day, Mehan said. To minimize your children's risk of injury, be sure to always follow posted height, age, weight and health restrictions; follow seating order and loading instructions; use safety equipment such as seat belts and safety bars; and, of course, keep hands and feet inside the ride at all times. Don't think your kid will follow the rules? Then don't let him on the ride. Worried that the ride itself is unsafe? Then skip it. "Trust your instincts," Mehan said.
Related: Learn more here.
Small, portable pools are an easy way for young children to cool off in the convenience of your backyard. From a safety standpoint, they might certainly appear more manageable than large in-ground or above-ground pools, but their small size doesn't make portable pools foolproof. Young children can drown in as little as an inch of water, and even the small pools at the ends of some water slide toys can pose a risk. As with other outdoor activities, the key here is supervision. Hoekstra advises parents "to remain within an arm's reach of any child who cannot swim well," while the federal government urges adults to learn CPR.
Climbing Trees and Treehouses
For some kids, nothing is more alluring than a tree with inviting branches perfect for supporting their agile bodies. It's tough, Hoekstra said, for parents to say "no" to such a beloved, idyllic activity -- she knows that from personal experience with her two tree-loving kids. "I don't want to be the unfun mom who says they can't climb a tree," she admitted. To make climbing as safe as possible, Hoekstra urges parents to check trees to ensure they are sturdy and free of dead branches. Make rules, such as limiting how high they can climb and prohibiting carrying toys up with them. Is a treehouse where they're spending their free time? Beware that injuries related to jumping or falling from treehouses aren't uncommon: they happen to more than seven children per day, according to Mehan. Build a treehouse low to the ground -- Mehan recommends going no higher than 10 feet -- and devise a safe way to get up and down from the treehouse. Try to avoid ropes and chains, since they pose a strangulation risk.
Icy surfaces, steep inclines and young children...what could possibly go wrong? Not surprisingly, the answer is "a lot." More than 20,000 children and teens are injured in sledding and snow tubing accidents every year, Mehan said. To prevent head injuries -- which young children are especially vulnerable to -- both Mehan and Hoekstra recommend wearing helmets. Hoekstra notes that sporting goods stores sell multi-sport and winter helmets, with the latter offering lining to protect against the cold. Experts also urge the use of sleds that can be steered while sitting feet-first instead of discs and snow tubes. Of course, always be sure that your chosen sledding location is free of obstacles like trees, fences, light poles and rocks. Also avoid sliding on a street or highway and never ride a sled being pulled by a motorized vehicle like an ATV or a car.
Related: See more sledding safety tips here.