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Whether it's two swings and a slide or an elaborate structure of climbing bars, tunnels and a pint-size rocket ship, the backyard play area is the ideal place for kids to stretch their legs and their imaginations. But before you send your children outside, you should consider some safety factors to help keep play time pain free.

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Play Yard Safety

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Whether it's two swings and a slide or an elaborate structure of climbing bars, tunnels and a pint-size rocket ship, the backyard play area is the ideal place for kids to stretch their legs and their imaginations.

But before you send your children outside, you should consider some safety factors to help keep play time pain free.

Not Just a Scraped Knee

You might think your backyard is safer than the local community playground, but the numbers don't agree. An August 2001 press release from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports, In 1999 alone, it is estimated that there were more than 200,000 playground-equipment injuries, with almost 47,000 injuries on home playgrounds to children under age 15.

The CPSC's 2001 report, Home Playground Equipment-Related Deaths and Injuries ( http://www.cpsc.gov/library/playground.pdf ), says that almost 40 percent of injuries to the under-five set and nearly 60 percent of the 5-to-9 age group occurred on home playgrounds. And while the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention & Control reported that about 75 percent of nonfatal injuries take place on public playgrounds, 70 percent of the 147 children who died from playground-related injuries between 1990 and 2000 were playing on home playgrounds.

Why such high numbers? Part of the problem may lie in parents unwillingness or inability to take on the expense of ensuring a safe play area, says Dr. Michael Gittelman, assistant professor in pediatric emergency medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. He says parents will go to a local chain and buy a playground equipment set for a few hundred dollars and cement it into the ground and think that is all that needs to be done.

What are some of the dangers? According to Gittelman, The number-one problem from these playgrounds are the falls. You really should have the appropriate safety surfacing under the playground. A lot of people just have grass, which is almost like falling on cement. Because the surface isn't appropriate, the play equipment is significantly dangerous.

If I had to pick just one main message for the backyard play area, I would warn about free-swinging ropes, jump ropes, clotheslines or pet leashes tied to the play equipment, says Ken Giles, spokesman for the CPSC. Somehow, the kids get the ropes around the neck, and then the kids stumble, fall and strangle. Any ropes, such as tire swings, must be attached at both ends top and bottom so there is no way for the child to get the rope around the neck.

If I then had to pick a couple more hazards to warn about, I would mention falls onto hard surfaces, such as asphalt, concrete or hard-packed dirt, Giles says. To prevent head injury, install about 9 inches of energy-absorbing material (wood chips, shredded rubber, sand or pea gravel) under the playground equipment. And don't have any gaps (spaces between steps or railings) in the danger zone between 3 1/2 inches and 9 inches. In other words, all gaps must be either smaller than 3 1/2 inches or bigger than 9 inches. The goal is to prevent strangulation, head injury and entrapment.

Treated-Wood Dangers

The danger of wood treated with CCA (chromated copper arsenate) has become a concern both for parents and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, since arsenic leaches out of the wood and into the soil and our kids. While the EPA has banned the use of wood pressure-treated with CCA for residential use as of January 2004, millions of homes have existing play sets containing CCA.

How can you tell? Pat Bischel, president of Northern Crossarm Co. Inc., a Wisconsin wood-treatment company, notes that, It's virtually impossible to tell (if a product is CCA-treated) by looking at the structure, unless the builder or manufacturer had left the end tags on the wood that would describe the treatment. The only other way is to talk to the previous owner and see who or where they bought it from.

When in doubt, the EPA does not recommend tearing the structure down. Instead, seal the wood with a penetrating type of oil or stain to help minimize the leaching of CCA. Be sure to wear gloves and a facemask when working with CCA-treated wood, and don't burn any pieces or use it as mulch. Make sure your children wash their hands thoroughly before eating if they've been in contact with wood that might be CCA-treated.

Alternatives to CCA-treated wood include composite or plastic lumber, untreated wood such as redwood and cedar, or wood treated with a non-arsenic and more environmentally safe wood preservative. Northern Crossarm, for example, uses EnviroSafe Plus, a new product that is not only free of heavy metals, but also has a host of benefits that make it ideal for any wood structure play or otherwise.

According to Gene Wilson of Wood Treatment Products Inc., developer of the product, the chemicals used in EnviroSafe including borate, the main active ingredient are natural ingredients that are safe for humans and pets. But EnviroSafe Plus treated wood is resistant to rot, mold, fungus and mildew, as well as insects. The preservative also provides inherent flame retardancy and helps reduce the tendency to crack, chip, fray or warp.

Long-Term Investment

When shopping for home playground equipment, parents can be overwhelmed with the myriad choices and the cost.

Every family has to make decisions based on their budget, says Barrett Brown, president of Cedarworks of Maine. But ultimately, no matter how much somebody pays for a play set, it's an investment for their family, and most people would like to get a return on that investment over the course of many years. My advice to parents would be to identify what are the most important features in a play set and make their initial investment in a system that can grow and last for their family over time as opposed to buying something that has all the bells and whistles that may be of an inferior quality. Think of it as an add-on type of purchase, growing and changing as your children's needs change

So do your kids really need a rope walk or tunneling tube, or is it just industry hype? Given the growing concern about children and obesity, and the lure of the TV and modem, Gittelman observes that, anything that will get a child to expand physical abilities, teach them to climb and walk in different ways, teach them how to maneuver around different things are all excellent.

Mother Nature is also becoming a key part of playground design, notes Jim Dempsey, senior vice president of Texas-based Grounds for Play, a manufacturer of a wide range of play equipment. The last few years there is definitely a move afoot to reintroduce more natural elements: trees and grass, sand, water play, digging areas with dirt.

While parents tend to think in terms of swing sets, a well-thought-out play area will encompass a variety of physical activities and types of play, says Kate Becker, national director of program management at KaBoom!, an Illinois nonprofit focused on safe playgrounds. Climbers, slides, swings, independent play, cooperative play and imaginative play should all be considered. Sand and water play can also really enhance a play environment. Playground components that appeal to all senses (hearing musical or mechanical sounds; touch different textures within the playground, etc.) can help to keep kids involved. (And) don't just think about the playground itself, think about building a pizza garden, incorporating art, bells, musical opportunities, Becker says. Space to run and play and to be a kid is important.

According to Dempsey, children engage in four main kinds of play all of which can be incorporated into the play area. Dramatic (imaginative) play is the most common type of play for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, with pint-sized boats and cars, playhouses and tents giving their imagination full rein while they engage in cooperative games of let's pretend.

While the sandbox (and its accompanying fleet of dump trucks and backhoes) is the best example of construction play, any toys or equipment with parts the children can use to build will improve their manual dexterity. Games with rules, such as baseball, hopscotch or even Simon Says, help develop social skills, while exercise play running, climbing, swinging will help burn off some of that energy with which little ones are so blessed.

And don't think of the equipment as just for the kids, Brown says. A play set is a wonderful opportunity for the entire family to play together as long as the components can handle the parents weight!

Special-needs children can also enjoy some of the benefits of backyard play, says Dempsey. He suggests parents first consult with their child's teachers, doctors and/or therapists for input on what equipment will be most beneficial and enjoyable.

Adaptive equipment for children at all levels of physical ability can be purchased from some commercial playground equipment manufacturers and installed on home play sets. For example, Grounds for Play has designed a chair with a seat belt that fits into the corner of a sandbox ideal for children with less physical control.

When designing a play area for children with mobility issues, you also need to choose the ground cover carefully so that it is compatible with both wheelchairs and walkers. Dempsey suggests engineered-wood fiber that thatches together and forms a spongy layer, 8 to 10 inches thick, which is also wheelchair accessible.

Play-Set Maintenance

While parents need to check on the condition of the play equipment on a regular basis, they also need to make certain the equipment is age-appropriate a little more challenging if the area is equipped for use by children of different ages. That's where the final safety factor comes into play: the parent's watchful eye.

When is a glider not a glider? When it becomes a battering ram, intentionally or otherwise. A swing in motion is just as dangerous if a toddler is walking across its pathway.

Parents need to teach their children playground safety, illustrating the need to be careful of others while they play. The play area also is an excellent outdoor classroom for teaching them manners and social skills as well: waiting their turn, sharing their toys and being open to the ideas of others.

The backyard play area then becomes more than just a place for kids to burn off energy. It is a training ground for successful and harmonious community living.

Nancy Christie is a freelance writer based in Youngstown, Ohio.

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