An ounce of prevention makes playtime safer


FEW CHILDREN grow up without at least one race to the emergency room, usually after an injury while playing. Most escape without much more than a scare or a scar. But each year 50,000 are permanently maimed and 8,000 do not survive their injuries.

Summer, when children are out playing for long hours, is the prime season for childhood accidents. And it is up to parents, teachers and coaches to take measures to protect young lives and limbs. To make playtime safe, consider these suggestions for curbing some common sources of trouble.

* Swimming

Each year more than 1,200 children under the age of 14 drown and more than 17,000 receive hospital treatment after nearly drowning.

Swimming pools are the main culprits. All should be fully enclosed with a fence that small children cannot climb and a self-latching gate they cannot open.

Swimming lessons by a qualified instructor are recommended for all children 3 years and older. And those who cannot swim should never rely on inflatable toys, tubes or rafts to stay afloat.

No child should swim alone, and older children should not swim in unsupervised areas like quarries, canals or ponds.

Toddlers, who can drown in seconds in just two inches of water, should never be left unattended in or near water, not even in a portable kiddie pool. Parents or caretakers should maintain a direct and constant view of any child in or near water.

* Bicycles

Bicycles are vehicles, not toys. Every day at least one child dies and 1,000 are injured in bike accidents. Many suffer head injuries that plague them for life. The vast majority of these accidents are preventable if children follow basic safety rules.

Children should not be allowed to ride a bike without wearing a helmet, a $40 insurance investment that only 5 percent of children now have. If you are a cyclist, be sure to set a good example. Helmets should also be worn by infants and children carried on an adult's bike. Choose a helmet that bears a Snell or ANSI quality approval label.

Children under the age of 8 or 9 should not be allowed to ride in the street, and older children who do should demonstrate their knowledge and ability to observe the rules of the road, including all traffic lights as well as stop and yield signs.

Teens who ride after dusk need a headlight, reflective strips on clothing and reflectors on the spokes and rear of the bike.

Do not buy a bike for the child to grow into; the balls of both feet should reach the ground when the child is on the seat. Be sure the child's hands are large and strong enough to use hand brakes. Foot brakes are best for young children.

* Playgrounds

More than 170,000 children are injured in playgrounds each year, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Most accidents involve falls on hard surfaces, including compacted dirt and grass as well as concrete and asphalt. Fractures are the most common serious injuries, and head injury is the leading cause of playground fatalities.

Concerted action by parents or community groups is often needed to make playgrounds safer for children. Rubber mats, sand, wood chips, sawdust, shredded mulch, fine gravel and artificial turf are preferred playground surfaces. Swing seats should be made of lightweight rubber or plastic.

All equipment, including home-based play gyms, should be securely anchored at least six feet from fences and walls.

* Skateboards

Well over 100,000 injuries a year involve children on skateboards. The American Academy of Pediatrics says children under age 5 should not use skateboards. All skateboarders should wear helmets and protective padding -- knee and elbow pads and perhaps wrist guards. These should also be standard equipment for users of in-line (roller blades) skates.

* Sports

Despite drastic improvements in equipment and regulations intended to reduce injuries, far too many children are seriously hurt playing organized and pick-up sports.

Each year about 150,000 children under age 13 suffer sports-related eye injuries serious enough to require medical attention.

Accidental injuries sustained while playing baseball lead the pack, afflicting 50,000 youngsters a year. Little League requires the use of a batting helmet by the batter, the on-deck batter and all base runners.

Those who play racket sports should wear eye protectors (special lenses or goggles) made of polycarbonate. Look for eye protectors that meet the standards of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).

* Streets

Children do not have to be doing anything more adventurous than crossing a street to sustain a serious injury. Children under 8 should not be allowed to cross streets alone.

The National Safe Kids Campaign, headed by Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General of the United States, points out that most children under age 8 think that cars can stop on a dime and that if they can see a car, it can "see" them.

They have difficulty judging the speed and distance of an approaching vehicle, and their peripheral vision is more limited than that of an adult.

* Windows

Windows are a common warm-weather hazard for small children who live in cities. Window guards should be installed on upper floors of multi-story homes or in apartments above the ground floor. Children should never be allowed to play on fire escapes and small children should not be left alone on upper-story decks.

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