How I love a good playground! I love seeing kids move outside. Climbing, swinging, jumping, and sliding. Their hearts, lungs, and muscles love the movement, the exhilaration. But what about playground safety?
Kids do get hurt on playgrounds. Today, I’ll discuss how theories in child development can help a playground live up to its potential and be safer.
Before you continue reading, please understand I am writing under the assumption we all understand two facts.
Two Truths About Playgrounds
1. Playing outside on playgrounds is good for kids’ health on multiple physical, social, and emotional levels. It is worthwhile!
2. Playgrounds in the United States have standards to keep them as safe as possible. See ( playgrounds cpsc.gov and healthychildren.org for details). And yet, injuries still happen. I encourage any caregiver to review these standards when evaluating a playground for their child. Some are obvious (soft base under the playground structure). Some are not (an awning or bar at the top of a slide to ensure a kid sits before sliding, for example). Either way, it’s fascinating and important. It’s also beyond the scope of what I’m discussing today.
What I want to focus on today is how to foster a child’s development and confidence while also lowering the risk of serious injury. Sometimes, learning and staying safe seem at odds with each other. It doesn’t need to be this way.
Many injuries in younger kids can be prevented with closer supervision.
How Can We Have Playground Safety While Still Allowing Kids to Challenge Themselves?
I’ll discuss 4 approaches to help lower the risk of injury. Keep in mind, these are parenting decisions. It’s a menu of sorts, things to consider as you play with your child. Only you’ll know what feels like a good fit for your family.
Let Kids Climb on Their Own
This first one is not stringently evidence-based. It is based on child development theories, anecdotes, and my own experience. It’s the approach I’ve taken with my own children.
Don’t put your child in a position or location they cannot get to on their own. Lifting them onto the climbing wall? Boosting them up and supporting their back as they climb a ladder? Holding them up to reach for those monkey bars instead of waiting until they’re tall enough to climb and grasp on their own? Instead, maybe we can increase their confidence and abilities by waiting until they are ready (physically and emotionally).
This approach does not mean kids completely fend for themselves. If they ask for help, we can talk them through challenges. An adult is still nearby.
It applies to getting down from structures too. This is especially relevant for young kids who cannot safely go down stairs yet. Instead of lifting or handholding them down a set of playground steps, we can coach them through it. Toddlers can go down steps by sitting on each step and scooting safely to the next. So, we can sit next to young children and demonstrate. Step by step. One by one. This way, they won’t find themselves “stuck” in a position they can’t get out of safely. Or, depending on the kid’s personality, they won’t necessarily try to bound down the steps as if supported by an adult’s firm grip. They’ll at least know there’s another way.
It’s worth remembering that all of our abilities vary a bit from day to day. One week, our youngster climbs the ladder. The next week, they don’t feel up for it. That’s okay too.
The idea stems largely from work by Dr. Emmi Pikler (and then Magda Gerber and now Janet Lansbury). It also has roots in other child development theories.
Toddler Going Down a Slide? Solo is Safer
There is an excellent study on playground slide injuries, referenced below. Generally speaking, children should not ride in an adult’s lap as they go down a slide. Seems counter-intuitive, right? The study showed that a child’s leg can get caught on the slide as the pair rides down. The weight of the adult continues to propel them down the slide. The child’s leg can then get caught and twisted, often leading to a fracture. A kid traveling down on their own is less likely to break their leg because of their lower weight; lesser forces are involved.
At the Playground, Grown-Ups Are For Spotting
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When I was in the midst of my pediatric training (long before I had children of my own), I saw so many playground injuries, specifically from monkey bars, that I wondered why monkey bars still existed. There seemed to be a huge amount of bone fractures due to falls from monkey bars.
The research supports my anecdotal experience. In fact, a 2018 study found that 64% of falls from monkey bars resulted in a fracture! (To be clear, this study only included falls that ended up in an ER visit). Back in the hospital, as our team admitted child after child with monkey bar injuries, I began to wonder if someone could use monkey bars safely at all.
A few years later, I read The Importance of Being Little, by Erika Christakis. (Affiliate link. If you have a preschooler in your life, I highly recommend this book). She makes a beautiful point about “spotting.” Don’t ban monkey bars, she says. Just spot your kid. In this case, spotting refers to standing close to a child as they climb. The adult’s arms are ready to catch or support should the child tumble or misstep. What seems obvious in hindsight, felt like a revelation when first read. We grown-ups can stand by. Obviously, this applies more to younger children, which is okay! The study and my experience showed that fractures due to falls from monkey bars were more common in younger kids anyway. (The study specified ages 4-8. My purely anecdotal recollection is ages 4-5, though not only those ages).
Now that I have young children in my life and spend a lot of time at playgrounds, I think about the concept of spotting all the time.
All the above suggestions combine into an overarching theme in child development. An attentive, present, and validating adult will help a child thrive.
Give children the opportunity to try scaling a structure instead of doing it for them. Let them navigate their way down a slide. Stay close when they aim for monkey bars.
It’s worth saying that a grown-up being Present with a capital P is the crux of encouraging growth while also keeping them safe. This presence without carrying an entire burden (metaphorically and literally) is key. Stand by and observe the process of a child navigating new steps . . . but don’t carry them up the steps.
Place yourself near the slide with arms ready to catch, if needed, but don’t cradle them down the slide.
We can observe with genuine interest, wonder, and patience. These playground activities really are marvels slowly unfolding before our eyes.
And those monkey bars? Once they’ve climbed, gripped, reached, and are ready to swing from rung to rung, maybe you’ll have seen the attempt so many times, that the “spotting” is just part of the process of observation.
I’d love to hear how other families navigate playground safety for their children. Please share in the comments.
Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier.
Disclaimer: This post is for information only. No medical advice. See full disclosure here.
Jennissen, C. A., Koos, M., & Denning, G. (2018). Playground slide-related injuries in preschool children: increased risk of lower extremity injuries when riding on laps. Injury epidemiology, 5(Suppl 1), 13. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40621-018-0139-x
Migneault, D., Chang, A., Choi, E., & Doan, Q. (2018). Pediatric Falls: Are Monkey Bars Bad News?. Cureus, 10(11), e3548. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.3548
Conversations with S.T., (regarding the step-scooting).
Christakis, E. (2017). The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grownups (Illustrated ed.). Penguin Books.