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Windy City, Illinois

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Pete Flowers
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Keeping Kids Safe At Playgrounds Can Be A Challenge

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This week, a lawsuit was filed in Chicago on behalf of the family of a young girl who was injured after falling off a slide at a neighborhood park. The seven-year old girl broke her arm in the fall from what is called a “slalom glider;” a metal and poly slide standing over six feet tall that the child straddles as it twists to the ground.

Actually, you really have to see it to understand it…and wonder how it came to be placed in a playground in the first place. Frankly, it looks like an accident waiting to happen, so the lawsuit (which I am not a part of) should have come as no surprise.

When newly designed pieces, such as the slalom glider, are placed in parks, parents assume they have been tested and found safe. That’s only partially true; park districts depend on the manufacturers to test their products, and assume what they’re buying is safe. That’s obviously not always a good assumption.

About ten or fifteen years ago, a lot of playgrounds were redesigned, and a lot of wood was used. They looked great and were a big improvement over the old structures. However, it was later discovered the treated wood many places used contained high levels of arsenic. Oops. And while most parks have replaced those structures, many parent-built ones using the same treated wood still remain in a lot of suburban backyards.

Despite tremendous improvements from the days of tube-metal “monkey bars,” wooden swings, and teeter-totters, playgrounds are still surprisingly full of perils. Even modern pieces of equipment, such as the slalom glider, can be hazardous to the children playing on or with them, and often the most innocuous play equipment hides the greatest dangers.

One standard item in a playground is the sandbox; kids of all ages love to dig and play with trucks, or just go barefoot in the sand. Unfortunately, in too many public parks the sandbox is used by the neighborhood cats as a litter box, and in more urban areas it can hide garbage, broken bottles, and the occasional used syringe.

But worse than a sandbox full of cat poop is what lurks in the “ball pit” of the kids play section at your local hamburger joint. Then again, what can anyone expect after the plastic balls have been slurped on by dozens of kids…some with runny noses, some with leaking diapers. And after playing in that cesspool junior will start scooping up some fries. Yum.

The biggest dangers are of course the old slides, swings, and climbers that still can be found in small town parks. Metal slides that heat up in the sunlight to temperatures that will burn kids’ bare legs, steel “jungle gyms” just waiting to crack a skull, and see-saws primed to take a tooth or two still exist in out-of-the-way parks and highway rest areas, all set to ruin a vacation.

Although I’ve been a little lighthearted, the truth is as parents we cannot assume just because it says playground it’s a safe place for our children to play. Take an extra few minutes to check out the equipment before you set your kids loose; a little caution first can save a trip to the ER later.

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  1. Tim Gill says:
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    The accident-free playground is undesirable, if not impossible. Boring playgrounds just make children try harder to get their thrills. The pursuit of zero risk has removed all trace of excitement and challenge from American playgrounds. The likely result? Bored and/or overweight children who are denied the chance to learn how to manage risks for themselves. In the UK and most European countries, we accept that a what is needed is a balanced approach. Sometimes, accidents happen on playgrounds and no-one is to blame. Until Americans take the same position, your playgrounds will become ever more sterile, and children and families will be the losers.