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How Safe Is Junior at Play?

Before kids hit the jungle gym, know what dangers they face.
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WebMD Feature

April 10, 2000 (New York) -- On a path along the Hudson River at the southern tip of Manhattan, in the shadow of the World Trade Center, is a playground surfaced in a soft, green, rubber-like material. The playground beckons with brightly painted multilevel climbing structures, swaying bridges, curvy yellow slides, a pedal-powered merry-go-round, and an elevated sand table that allows a child in a wheelchair to scoop sand and build sandcastles. This innovative complex is a far cry from old-style playgrounds, with finger-pinching teeter-totters and swings sunk into concrete. But according to recent reports, America still has a long way to go in making outdoor play areas safer for kids.

A safety report issued in mid-March of last year from the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), which analyzed over 1,300 playgrounds in 31 states, gave the United States an overall grade of C-. The NPPS is expected to release the results of an analysis of all 50 states in several weeks. And, according to the latest data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), each year playground-related injuries account for nearly one-quarter million emergency room visits.

Teetering Between Safety and Fun

Although playgrounds like the one described above may be state of the art with their soft surfaces and other safety touches, design alone can't guarantee safety. Experts say that more adult supervision is needed to lower injury rates, as well. "Manufacturers can't create a completely injury-proof play system," says John Preston, chief engineer for children's products at CPSC until last year.

In fact, building a totally safe piece of equipment isn't just impossible, it's unrealistic as well. "Safety is a paramount concern," says Mike Hayward, director of Little Tikes Commercial Play Systems, one of the largest manufacturers of playground equipment in the United States. "But if the equipment does not hold sufficient challenge for kids, they'll simply find the challenge elsewhere -- usually by climbing a nearby fence or tree."

So playground planners have to walk a fine line -- offering sufficient stimulation and fun for kids, while keeping the likelihood of injuries down. "We want kids on playgrounds," says Laura Tosi, MD, chairwoman of pediatric orthopedic surgery at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "We don't want them seeking adventure elsewhere."

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