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    How Safe Is Junior at Play?

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

    Surface Matters

    A prerequisite for a successful playground, it seems, is something to climb on -- and what goes up must come down. More than 70% of equipment-related injuries treated in emergency rooms in 1998 were the result of falls, according to the CPSC. Swings lead the way for kids ages 0 to 4, according to the NPPS, closely followed by climbers -- which can be anything from old-style monkey bars to modern, elevated bridges and curlicue towers. Climbing equipment caused the most injuries for kids ages 5 to 14.

    That's where the new playground surfaces come into play, literally. "It's not so much the distance kids fall, it's what they land on that's crucial," explains Tosi. A fall to a hard surface -- such as packed dirt (whose shock absorption changes with the seasons) or concrete -- is more likely to cause a serious head injury, the most frequent cause of playground deaths, say experts. In fact, "surface covering is the single biggest factor that determines the severity of a playground injury," says Tosi. As a result, many manufacturers now offer soft surfacing materials such as mulch, wood chips, or rubber-like materials to accompany the new play systems.

    Keeping Close Watch

    Efforts have also been made to keep kids closer to the ground. According to voluntary CPSC guidelines (established in 1991 and updated in 1997), the maximum height of climbers has been set at 84 inches for school-aged children and 60 inches for preschoolers. It's also suggested that ladders have steps instead of rungs, promoting greater stability. And, of course, the guidelines offer a list of other simple corrections that can save children from injury -- nuts and bolts that are smooth and inset, so children can't scrape themselves or catch their clothing, for instance.

    Unfortunately, many playgrounds across the country still have a long way to go. To help increase awareness of playground safety issues, the National Program for Playground Safety has declared the week of April 24 through the 28th as Playground Safety Week. It's a good time to have a look at your local playground equipment. But don't stop there, say playground safety advocates. Make sure you keep an equally sharp eye on the children themselves -- particularly those who like to climb.

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