Let’s face it! There is no way to make any environment 100% childproof. Bumps, bruises, cuts, scrapes, bug bites, and the occasional broken bone will occur – but there is still plenty you can do to minimize risks of injury to children playing in your yard. Here is a handy checklist:
Clear up hazards: This includes fallen sticks (which can be stabby) and larger rocks (which are known for tripping little feet and stubbing tiny toes). Inspect regularly for bee, wasp, and hornets’ nests, especially around fence posts, gutters, air conditioning condensers, and low-hanging tree limbs. Wood piles are another potential hazard, as they often are homes to rodents, snakes, and (in some areas of the country, poisonous spiders). Poorly stacked wood piles can also be unstable, posing risks for curious climbers.
Stow tools and chemicals: Consistently and safely stow all gardening, lawncare, hand/power tools, and yard chemicals (fertilizers, weed killers, cleaning solutions, when not in use). Dangerous yard equipment that especially fascinates young children includes ladders, mowers, portable fuel cans, and power washers, so be sure to never leave these unattended with children.
Cut grass. This is especially important in areas of the country where tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease are prevalent. Ticks love to hang out in long grass, so make a schedule for regular cutting and stick to it. When cutting grass, be sure children are well out of range, as mowers often throw up small sticks, stones, and dust, emit noxious exhaust, and can be a source of burns (from hot motors and other metal parts).
Avoid containers that collect water. Mosquitos, which, in North America, carry viruses such as West Nile or the virus that causes Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), breed in standing water, so store containers — such as empty planters, buckets, trash cans, and kiddie pools — inside where they cannot collect rainwater. This also lowers risks of accidental drownings, which can occur in as little as 1-2 inches of water.
Choose, install, and maintain play structures with great care. When it comes to choosing swing sets and other play structures for the yard, focus on quality and materials. Wooden or hard plastic swing attachments, for example, are loads of fun until someone gets cracked in the head or face by one in motion, which can result in ER trips for concussion or stitches. When installing a new play structure, invest in a broad, soft base of wood chips or recycled rubber pellets to cushion accidental falls. Measure the range of motion on swing attachments and mark out a safety boundary so children can easily avoid being hit. Anchor the structure securely to the ground and inspect regularly for signs of wood rot or loosening bolts (a common outcome of vigorous swinging). Wooden play structures as they age can also become a big source of painful-to-remove splinters, so be sure to maintain paint, stain, and sealants to guard against this hazard. Finally, establish and consistently enforce a clear set of rules for play structures, such as no jumping off ladders or swings in motion, no standing or running up and down slides, one person to a swing, and so forth.
Cover sandboxes. What little kid doesn’t love to dig for hours in a sandbox? The problem is that outdoor and feral cats like to use them too – as litterboxes. This can expose kids to parasitic diseases such as round worms and toxoplasmosis. The easiest thing to do is to cover sandboxes when not in use. Cat-repelling sprays work well too if a cover is not practical.
Pull up poisonous plants, flowers, and mushrooms. The good news is there are several great mobile apps that enable you to instantly ID poisonous and otherwise toxic plants with the snap of a smartphone camera. Younger children and pets are more at risk of tasting toxic things, such as holly berries and wild mushrooms, that look appealing. Older children with greater independent range, are more at risk of coming into contact with poison ivies, oaks and other itchy rash-causing plants, so be sure they know how to recognize these on their own. Another thing to know about yard plants is that pollinating insects such as bees are attracted to specific colors of flowers: blues, purples, violets, whites, and yellows. Avoid planting these colors near child play areas to minimize risks of stings and/or allergic reactions.
Nix the trampoline. Pretty much every survey of pediatricians and ER docs says the number-one thing they will never have in their yard is a trampoline. What’s more, adding a trampoline to your yard can make you ineligible for homeowners’ insurance, raise your premiums to exorbitant heights, or expose you to liability as few insurers will cover injuries related to trampolines. If you must have a trampoline, go for an in-ground version with covered springs. Or, if above ground, make sure the trampoline is properly enclosed with strong netting. For either type of trampoline, establish clear rules, such as one jumper at a time, no flips, and use only with adult supervision. Be careful also with trampoline placement as risk-taking children can be counted on to find novel ways of enjoying, such as jumping from a garage or shed roof onto the trampoline.
Keep plenty of fun, safe equipment — balls, nets, backstops, bases, sports gear — on hand for play. Bored children will often find ways to push limits on safety, climbing trees, building jumps for their bikes, and so forth. Even risk-averse children will succumb to peer pressure and could be at greater risk of becoming injured as they lack the conviction of the risky activities they’re undertaking. The best way to combat this tendency is to make sure there are plenty of wholesome things to do. Help kids also to research online about traditional games they can organize and enjoy for hours with other children, such as Red Rover, Fishy/Fishy, and Capture the Flag.
Fence swimming pool and outdoor grilling areas separately. It goes without saying that young children should never be allowed near swimming pools with no adults present. Grilling areas, likewise, are full of risks — charcoal briquettes, lighter fluid, lighters, propane tanks — that should always be kept well secured and out of children’s reach. Note, however, that full propane tanks should never be stored inside even in a garage or shed.
Just in case, keep a well-stocked first-aid kit on hand. Add plenty of band aids, antibacterial cream, instant ice packs for bumps and bruises, a sterile needle/tweezers for removing splinters and embedded pebbles, anti-itch medicine for bug bites or rashes, poison control information and ipecac syrup for inducing vomiting if needed.
No matter how safe you think your yard is for kids, there is no substitute for adult supervision and interaction. So, get out there in the sun and enjoy some safe and wholesome fun!