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Just How Hard Can My Toddler Fall on the Playground Before I Panic?

They’re resilient little buggers, sure. But if you want to keep your next playground outing from turning into a trip to the ER, read this first.

Keeping a toddler safe on the playground is more of an art than science. Some parents hover and chase, others have rules, others let them “build character” with a few scrapes and falls.  In other words, principles of parenting on the playground are usually arbitrary, based on gut feeling rather than sound science. So what does the science say about kids falling? The science is clear on one thing: It happens. Some 2.8 million emergency room visits due to kids falling every year and 38 percent, or more than a third of all fall-related injuries, happen to those ages 4 and under, with some 45 percent of the visits being for serious stuff like fractures and dislocations. Dig into these numbers and you’ll find there are very real rules and takeaways that parents can follow to keep their kid safe on the playground and out of the ER. Here’s what the experts say about kids, falls, and ways to injury-proof your child’s playground outings.

How High Is Too High?

Anything below adult eye level is fair game and anything higher is off-limits. This might sound like a made-up rule (it is), but the principle isn’t far off. “If the fall is from a short distance, the injury may be as simple as a concussion, whereas falling from heights greater than two times your child’s own height may involve a skull fracture with bleeding,” says Denise Klinkner, M.D., a pediatric surgeon at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center in Rochester, MN.

“Generally speaking, injuries become more severe once a child falls from a height two to three times his own,” agrees Alison S. Tothy, M.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Pediatric Emergency Medicine at the University of Chicago. Typically, though, the injuries Dr. Tothy sees in her practice are relatively benign. “It’s a lot of bumps and bruises, maybe a minor head injury,” she says.

Not surprisingly, climbing devices and swings top the list for playground accidents, and falls account for 75 percent of all injuries, according to Safe Kids, a national child safety awareness organization.

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“Young children especially are susceptible to falls — they are less coordinated and still developing their balance, but also very curious about the world around them,” says Libbe Slavin, Injury Prevention Program Manager for Safe Kids in Wisconsin. “They are looking to learn but unaware of the consequences.”

Kids fall. It’s a basic part of childhood. You can minimize some of the damage by staying alert at the playground. “A playground is not a free babysitter,” says Dr. Tothy. “It’s not time to read the paper or be on the phone. You don’t need to hover, but you should be a quiet observer to everything your child does.”

How to Judge a Fall

So let’s say you look away, and when you look back, your kid has taken a tumble from the jungle gym. How you should respond will depend on several things: Are they conscious? Are they lying is an awkward position? Are they bleeding? “Use your parenting instincts,” says Dr. Tothy. “If a child is unconscious or lying awkwardly and having trouble moving, call 911 for an ambulance.”

“Spinal cord injuries are less common in children but do occur,” says Dr. Klinkner. “Also, because children have disproportionately larger heads, there is the potential for more severe head injuries.”

On the other hand, if your little one starts running toward you, crying and holding their arm, you can breathe easier: They might have broken a bone, but they’re going to be OK. “After a fall, take your cues from what your child is doing,” Dr. Tothy advises. Don’t escalate future fears by making a big deal of it if your child seems relatively unscathed. Most of the time, hugs and sympathy are the only medicine needed.

How to Judge the Safety of a Playground

Kids will fall anywhere — more injuries happen at home, in fact, than on the playground — but you can still lower the odds of serious accidents by scoping out your kid’s romping ground to be sure it’s safe. To start, look for playgrounds with shock-absorbing surfaces, like rubber mats and sand. Ideally, “you want 9 inches of loose-fill material like wood chips, pea gravel or sand,” says Slavin from Safe Kids. “These materials often get worn away under equipment or piled up to the sides near the equipment if it’s used often.” These will help to absorb impact if your kid falls.

Also, head for recently built playgrounds if that’s a possibility — “many of the current designs give kids the illusion of height when really the climbing equipment is lower but it’s built on a mound of a hill so kids still feel high up,” says Dr. Tothy. Older playgrounds tend to have higher slides and jungle gyms (parents didn’t worry as much back in the ’80s!), so be sure to stay close if your child is exploring them.

“On older playgrounds, parents should check to be sure the equipment is in good shape and stable,” says Dr. Tothy. Look for loose bars, sharp corners, and boards or nails that could be sticking out.

Playground Safety 101

Protecting your little one is your top priority, and with a few rules you can enjoy the playground while still staying safe. “It is important to allow kids to take supervised risks,” says Libbe Slavin, Injury Prevention Program Manager at Safe Kids. Follow these age-by-age guidelines.

Age: 6 to 23 months Look for: Short slides, bucket swings, and spring rockers Safety tip: Keep climbing equipment less than 32 inches high.

Age: 2 to 5 years old Look for: Merry-go-rounds, slides, swings, single file step ladders Safety tip: All equipment should be less than 60 inches high.  Age: 5 to 12 years old Look for: Arch climbers, cable walks, vertical sliding poles, and overhead rings.    Safety tip: If you have to lift your child onto the equipment, outside of swings, the child probably shouldn’t be on it.

Learning to Let Go

Given the scary stats from the CDC (falls are the leading cause of non-fatal injuries for all children ages 0 to 19! Eight thousand kids head to the ER every day for fall-related injuries!), it seems super counterintuitive to tell you not to hold your child’s hand from the minute you enter the playground right up until you climb in the car to go home.

But at some point (and here’s where those famous parent instincts kick in again), your child’s got to learn to do a little fending for himself. If yours is pre-K, they’re probably not there yet. This might be why the group of kids Dr. Tothy sees most often for playground injuries are ages 5 to 8. “Kids this age are a little braver, a little more willing to experiment with what their body is capable of doing—and sometimes they misjudge it,” she says.

Note: If your kid comes home from school with a bloody nose from falling during recess, or if they take a digger right in front of you during a Saturday morning play session, don’t panic, don’t lay blame, and don’t feel guilty. It’s all part of being a kid.