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Three mistakes parents make that lead to playground injuries

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May 7, 2012
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Welcome to May — unofficial start of the playground season and all the pediatric injuries that result from tumbles off trampolines and smashes on slides. “It gets extremely busy here in the spring and summer,” said Dr. Benjamin Shore, an orthopedic surgeon at Children’s Hospital Boston. “About 10 to 12 fractures come through the ER during a typical evening shift with about half a dozen requiring surgery.”

What’s more, a recent Johns Hopkins University study predicted a rise in accidental injuries if government efforts to increase childhood physical activity by building more playgrounds continue to ignore the importance of addressing safety issues.

Shore said he sees patterns in the kinds of playground injuries that require emergency room attention, with many resulting from mistakes made by unwitting parents. Full disclosure: Years ago, I caused my then 9-year-old daughter to fracture her clavicle while helping her flip upside down on a set of rings on our swing set. I let go of her, and she let go of the rings too soon and fell on her shoulder.

Here’s a list of more common injuries and how parents can help kids avoid them:

1. Leg fractures from slides. As surprising as this may sound, the risk is greatest when parents ride down a slide with their young children in an effort to protect them from injuries. What usually happens is that a child’s foot gets stuck on the slide, while the parent continues to slide down behind the child with a downward force that breaks the small leg.

Nearly 14 percent of leg fractures among kids presenting to a Long Island hospital during an 11-month period occurred from kids riding down slides with their parents, according to a 2009 study. An orthopedic surgeon told The New York Times that he created a poster for pediatricians’ offices to warn parents about this risk.

“These injuries seem to occur most often in kids under age 3,” said Shore. Parents, he added, should never ride down slides with their kids. To assess whether a slide is too high for a young child, he added, parents may want to stick to putting toddlers and preschoolers on slides that aren’t higher than the reach of an adult arm.

Another common sense tip: Check out the age of the other kids coming down the slide. If they’re years older, you may want to keep your child off. Also, kids need to be supervised to ensure that they’re not coming down the slide too soon after the child in front of them. Collisions are another big risk of injury, said Shore.

2. Injuries from trampolines. These usually occur when two kids or more jump on the trampoline at once. “About 60 to 70 percent of trampoline injuries that we see occur from more than one kid being on at a time,” said Shore. One study found that the younger and smaller of the two kids was 14 times more likely than the bigger kid to be injured because the greater force from the heavier kid tends to bounce the lighter child up and off the apparatus.

Given the thousands of head injuries and fractures caused by trampolines every year, the American Academy of Pediatrics takes a pretty firm stand against them. The organization says they should not be used as play equipment for kids and shouldn’t be set up in a backyard. Kids under 6 shouldn’t be on trampolines at all, and those who are older should only be on them as part of a supervised gym program.

3. Hard falls from monkey bars. “The number one reason for elbow fractures that we see is a fall from the monkey bars,” said Shore. While sometimes these are impossible to prevent, making sure that playgrounds have a soft, thick surface to cushion a child’s fall can help minimize the impact of an injury.

Concrete, asphalt, and blacktop are clearly unsafe, but grass, soil, and packed-earth surfaces aren’t much better for cushioning falls. Rubber mats and wood chips — about 12 inches deep — are the best surfaces for equipment up to 8 feet high.

Deborah Kotz

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2

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