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Outdoor Safety

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Playground Safety

girls at playgroundThough parents may be home, children will want to play outside and unsupervised at a friend's house or at the park down the block. Before allowing this freedom, parents should thoughtfully determine whether children are mature enough to safely do this sort of thing unsupervised. Children should be mature enough to walk to the location alone (or with their friends) and to reliably come home at an agreed upon time. Parents should set explicit rules regarding where children are allowed to go and how far away from home they may travel. The specifics of where children are allowed to go and how far should be sensitive to how children will get there (e.g., whether they are walking or riding a bicycle or scooter), and what path they will take, and what the traffic conditions are on that path. Parents will want to make sure children understand and will abide by any curfew rules for when they must return home, and meet in advance any requirements for setting up play-dates. For instance, if parents want to require that children cannot go play with a friend unless their friend's parents have been alerted to this fact, then children need to understand this rule and how it can be complied with. Communicating with playmates' caregivers can also help to ensure that everyone is "on the same page" with regards to rules.

Children who are outside playing need to be protected from sun exposure. Overexposure to the sun can not only lead to painful sunburns, but will also very likely increase their risk of developing skin cancers when they become teens or adults. All children who are at least six months old should use a sunblock of at least 15 SPF, applied regularly as indicated in the packaging directions. Sunblock should be reapplied frequently, especially if children are sweating or swimming. On especially hot days, kids should take breaks in the shade or house to cool off and rest, and drink plenty of water (rather than soda) to stay hydrated. For more information on this important topic, please see our section on Sun Safety.

Bicycle/Skate/Scooter Safety

Often, when children are playing outside, they ride bicycles or scooters or use other wheeled toys. Whenever they use such devices, children should wear helmets and appropriate elbow and knee pads in order to protect them from falls or other impacts which could damage their bones, joints or brains. Helmets should fit snugly and sit on top of the head; they shouldn't tilt forward or backward. This placement will ensure the best head protection in the event of an accident. If a child does take a spill which causes the helmet to be impacted, the helmet should then be replaced even if it looks undamaged. A helmet that survives one fall may not be strong enough to adequately protect children through a second one.

Helmets help keep kids safe on self-propelled vehicles like bicycles and scooters. However, they do not make motorized vehicles such as dirt bikes, ATV's (all-terrain vehicles), three-wheelers, or four-wheelers safe for school-aged children to ride. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that no child under the age 16 be allowed to ride motorized vehicles. A large portion of ATV-related injuries and deadly ATV accidents happen to child riders, as they are not cognitively and physically mature enough to handle these powerful machines with proper restraint and respect.

Swimming Pool Safety

Another outdoor family pleasure spot that requires constant adult supervision is the swimming pool. There is little room for supervision errors with regard to swimming pools or hot tubs, as accidents can lead to children's drowning death in just minutes. Constant, vigilant adult supervision of children while they are swimming near a pool is essential. Parents should also take care to block children's access to swimming pools and hot tubs when they are not in use. Rules of pool use should include: restrictions against running, wrestling, and other rough and tumble play. Doing "cannon balls" or other dives in most residential pools is often a bad idea, as many of these pools are not deep enough for these jumps to be safely performed.

While enrolling kids in swimming lessons is a great way to teach them water safety and lessen their risk of a swimming related accident, swimming lessons are not a guarantee that children will be safe in or near a pool. Even trained adult swimmers can become overwhelmed in a stressful situation and have accidents. Adult supervision and group supervision are the key components for keeping children safe in the water. Adults who act as supervising "life-guards" while children swim should themselves known how to swim and be trained (and retrained each year) in relevant water rescue, and first-aid skills.