You can’t actually push your kid so hard they flip over the playground swing set. But you can push hard enough to land them in the hospital with whiplash or a traumatic brain injury. So the next time your kids obnoxiously demand that you push them “higher, dad, HIGHER”—consider ignoring their pleas.
Swings are the most common source of traumatic brain injuries for children, according to an analysis of more than 20,000 ER visits. And while fatalities on the playground are rare—the Consumer Product Safety Commission investigated only 40 fatalities related to playground equipment between 2001 and 2008—most deaths that do occur are due to strangulation, often caused by swing set chains. The upshot is that playgrounds are not particularly dangerous but, if there’s anything at the park that’ll cause serious damage, it’s the swings.
“Studies are driven by data, so typically mechanisms with high rates of injury or death are studied as opposed to those with lower rates,” Sarah Denny, a pediatrician with the American Academy of Pediatrics, told Fatherly. “Fortunately swings do not have a high rate of serious injury or death.”
Beyond TBI and death, vigorous swinging may cause whiplash according to chiropractor David A. Shapiro, who told Fatherly that he has treated many children with neck and spine injuries from swings. Young kids are particularly vulnerable to whiplash because they typically have underdeveloped neck and shoulder muscles, along with heads that are too big for their bodies. These injuries are often not reported in the injury data, Shapiro says, because they don’t require trips to the hospital and cause subtle harm. “Symptoms may include neck pain, frequent ‘stiff neck’, decreased range of motion, and headaches, but many children won’t develop symptoms,” Shapiro explained to Fatherly. “For years following this activity, their injury will go undetected.”
Keeping your kids safe at the playground means ensuring that there are no hazards such as loose or jagged equipment, and safe surfaces like sand, rubber, or wood chips. But it’s just as important to take precautions around the swing set, and use good old-fashioned common sense. “Caregivers should adjust the height that they push the child to the child’s ability to remain seated on the swing hold on with both hands and not fall off,” Denny says. Shapiro adds that if kids are going high enough to create slack in the chain of the swing, then it’s definitely a sign that they are going too high and are at an increased risk for traumatic brain injuries.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the overall risk for injury from swing sets is minimal, so children should not be discouraged from swinging, as long as they’re supervised and cautious. “There are several benefits of swinging — the caregiver is bonding with the child, they are outside doing a fun activity together, they’re getting exercise and making memories, and they are away from electronics and other distractions,” Denny says. “These far outweigh the minimal risks of injury.”