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Outdoor Safety Continued

Angela Oswalt, MSW

Many caregivers install sand boxes and playground equipment sets on their properties to increase the amount of fun their kids can have. Ready access to playground equipment is a wonderful thing to provide for children but it does come with attendant dangers. Concerned caregivers can take some simple precautions to help lessen the risks associated with such equipment. The first key to a safe playground is selecting an appropriate and safe area in which to place the equipment. Select a spot that is flat and level, which will drain water well and not become muddy. Stationary equipment components should be placed within the selected field so that they are at least six to eight feet away from one another. If swings are installed separately from other equipment, they should be placed at least twenty feet away from walls (so that children cannot fly off the swings into walls).

Once the space is selected, it should be prepared to create a softer landing place for potential falls and accidents. Gravel and blacktop are not appropriate for a playground, and even grass isn't a very good solution because normal wear will create bald and compacted, hard spots in the soil. Caregivers should cover the play area with a rubber or synthetic mat or with sand, wood chips, or loose rubber bits in an adequate area around all play equipment. Follow manufacturers' guidelines about how far to extend the play mat around the equipment.

The next step in ensuring a safe playground consists of selecting equipment that is designed for the child's age and size. While buying larger, more complex playground equipment may seem like a good investment that children can "grow into", such equipment may actually set up a hazardous situation. Instead, select equipment best suited for the child's present stage of development and then build on that basic equipment purchase as the child grows.

When purchasing playground equipment, make sure that it meets the local playground safety standards (published by the American Society for Testing and Materials standards, Canadian Playground Safety Institute, and Standards Australia). When installing the equipment, caregivers should make sure that they read and follow all manufacturers' instructions to ensure that the equipment is properly placed, anchored, assembled, and padded.

For home sand boxes, caregivers should help keep the space as hygienic as possible. Silica-based "beach" sand is a safe choice for sandboxes. Limestone-based sand may contain asbestos, which is harmful to children's lungs. When not in use, sand boxes should be tightly covered to prevent pets and wild critters from using them as a litter box.

As children grow, they should be taught rules for playing safely on playground equipment and with other children. Playground safety ultimately comes down to helping children make wise and thoughtful choices about how to use the available equipment. All adult efforts at creating a safe play area will be for nothing if children make poor or dangerous choices while playing. The imperative for caregivers to teach their children how to play safely is a wonderful opportunity for adults to model and to teach good decision-making. Close adult supervision to enforce playground rules is also required.

Another outdoor family pleasure spot that requires constant, absolute adult supervision is the family swimming pool. As previously mentioned, babies and young children can drown silently in as little as one inch of standing water. Even a puddle can present a lethal challenge to a hapless infant. Consequently, children must never be allowed near the swimming pool without direct and constant adult supervision. Infant and young children's access to pool areas must be absolutely blocked when no adult supervision is available. Families can purchase electronic pool alarms that will alert adults when an unsupervised child has entered the pool. However, these units can be expensive. Another more economic choice is to situate the pool inside a locked gate or fence that children cannot access on their own from the outside. Families may also purchase pool covers to prevent pool access; however, adults need to check the cover often to make sure that no gaps have formed along the perimeter that will allow water access.

While providing "floaties" or inflatable arm and body pillows may add fun to children learning how to swim, caregivers should not trust these devices to prevent babies and young children from drowning. Such devices may easily become deflated or punctured and lose their buoyancy. Even when properly inflated, such devices are often not sufficient to keep children's faces out of the water. "Floaties" are thus absolutely useless as infant life preservers. Even baby swimming lessons are not a insurance policy against drowning. Adults who are trained how to swim can become overwhelmed in a stressful situation and unable to use that skill. Adult supervision is truly the key component that must be present if kids are to be kept safe while swimming.

What is true regarding safety for in-ground or large swimming pools also applies to kiddie wading pools and other temporary "toy" pools. Adults should constantly monitor the use of such wading pools. Caregivers should empty wading pools after each use and store them upside down (or deflated, if they are inflatable) so as not to create a drowning hazard, should the basin accidentally become refilled during an unsupervised period (such as after a rain storm). Any adults that provide poolside supervision should also be trained (and retrained each year) in how to provide effective CPR and first aid for children.

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