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Child's play: How to keep your garden and outdoor space safe

Oct 29, 2023

All trampolines, including ground-set models, should include bumpers, pads to cover springs, and a well-maintained net. Pictures: iStock

It's a wild and wonderful galaxy without boundaries, spoilsport indoor rules and free of all dangers in the eyes of a child. The reality is that every year serious accidents befall kids frolicking in their own gardens. We’ve never had such a wide choice of means by which to bruise up the children, but safety standards for commercial play equipment have improved enormously.

Four and under? You, the sandpit, rides in the wheelbarrow and a good swathe of lawn are the ultimate adventure wonderland. Following your children's lead, you can instigate planted areas that make intriguing spots to hide, take them on a mysterious safari behind hedging or conjure a whole fairy garden. Live willow tunnels, cotton teepees for picnics and secret meetings — your child's imagination and sensory abilities will inject more fun into the garden than any four-figure swing set.

That said, it's reasonable to be a bleating, neurotic helicopter in flip-flops when your toddler ventures out across hard and soft landscaping clouded with insects, curious plants, and obstacles that could lead to an upsetting boo-boo or a terrified trip to the emergency department.

Water slides, paddling pools, shallow limestone steps, plunges off decking, and elevated playhouses? It's enough to purée the nerves of the most vigilant parent. It's important to not only mind your younger children on the spot but to set them up for success by child-proofing those areas with the most risk. Choose your pieces carefully and be ready to supervise from the safety of a deck chair as the gladiatorial sparring of the summer holidays is unleashed. Age-inappropriate toys account for thousands of accidents every summer.

No wandering!

First of all, ensure your small children cannot easily get off the property — this and other cautionary tales here include Nana's house and visits with friends. They should have no access to the road or to neighbouring land (farmyards are of very special concern here) and if you’re allowing them to play on a driveway, extra measures must be taken.

Can they climb over and under fences or hedging? Your neighbour's dog might become unexpectedly territorial. Don't simply assume your little darlings won't go for a spontaneous, naughty wander.

Designs for safety

Outdoor play equipment such as swings and slides should carry the BS EN 1176 standard if the equipment is in good order or the older EN71 number — this covers all toys or anything that could be mistaken for a toy designed for kids up to the age of 14 (when you’ll run into a whole other set of joys). This shows that the items deliver quality parts and have passed European-rated testing.

Always aim for pieces that are age appropriate for all your children. Assemble equipment to the letter ensuring all nuts and bolts provided are used. Don't substitute any parts or fixings from the mystifying exploded diagram. Second-hand or inherited equipment may be compromised by heavy use or missing vital parts. Check them carefully before accepting kind offers.

Before you DIY your own pieces (thanks Dad for that spine-shattering see-saw) — keep in mind, that there is science and acute engineering detail to outdoor toys. For example, slide sides need to be 64mm high to stop children from being scooped out by the natural forces of motion and cannoned into the next-door neighbours.

Some outdoor playhouses are made by garden shed suppliers. While some will follow toy safety standards to the letter, the wood will be pressure-treated and not suited to constant handling. The timber may also be splintery, and the windows not in a safety glass or perspex.

Apart from hapless trips on patio stones (some bumps and knocks are simply unavoidable), higher falls are a real and present danger. If the surface is 300mm off the ground, install a 900mm high balustrade. If it's higher, makers recommend around 1,100mm railings with safe spacing for children's heads and limbs.

Homemade adventures

Many parents with a shaggier, rural garden with a large tree will improvise with something classic such as a large tyre slung from a rope on a tree. These make-shift adventures can be a source of intense joy through long summer days. Ensure you choose a very strong branch on a tree uncompromised by any rot. What's the arc the swing will take, and could it hit something on its travels? Put rules in place for homemade tree houses and any airborne adventure equipment and stick to your word when it comes to dangerous behaviour with real-world consequences.

Tyre swings, homemade treehouses, and platforms are unsuited for very young children. Where older kids are using them, they should be checked repeatedly throughout the season for any shift in the elements or loosening of fixings. Proud screws or any bit of wood or metal sticking up even slightly can slice through that angelic skin as they rocket by.

Soft landings

Aim for soft landings. Children, given basic action of swings, climbing frames, and other equipment, will start wildly experimenting within a day or two. Swings and climbing frames should be anchored firmly into concrete and given a surrounding clearance of 2m to 2.5m for children to jump off safely, as they develop into jet-powered superheroes. Look out for high sides and guardrails to at least keep them going in the right direction.

Dynamic play equipment like bouncy castles and trampolines can jet fairy-light children into the tree canopy or propel them into ground-based potential collisions with sharp shrubs, fencing, paving, and furniture. All trampolines, including ground-set models, should include bumpers, pads to cover springs, and a well-maintained net.

Check for low-slung branches in the arc of any swing. Grass, sand, rubber matting, and bark chippings are all useful additions for a soft, energy-absorbing fall. Use the lawn as a generous play mat and leave the grass a little shaggier in the hotter months as clay soils can bake to unforgiving concrete. Bouncy castles offer a ribbed unstable surface that's difficult to dismount.

The HSE advises: "Keep the area around the bouncy castle clear in case a child jumps or falls off. Watch bigger children around smaller children — they could knock them over. Do not allow children near the electricity supply for the bouncy castle. Do not allow children under six to play on a trampoline.

"Allow only one child on the trampoline at any time. Always use a safety net. Remove trampoline ladders after use. This is in case younger children try to use it when you’re not around."

Water hazards

Finally, it's a good idea to talk with your children about rough-housing violently around play equipment, and to enforce some basic savvy when someone is having their "turn". Then, in a firm, calm voice, flat ban them off slides, swings, and trampolines when they are wet.

Children can drown in a few centimetres of water, and a listing toddler, its head still wobbling as it walks can easily plummet forward on wet slippery surfaces provided by water slides, paddling pools, hoses, and buckets. There is not one single water-based piece of play equipment or garden feature outside of water pistols suited to the under-five group without tight adult supervision, minute-to-minute.

If you are lucky enough to have deeper water in the form of an in-ground over over-ground swimming pool, hot tub or Jacuzzi, no children or pets should have access to the area without you being there. Covers, standard gates, ordinary fences, threats — nothing will work if they are alone, mesmerised and intent to get to the water's edge.

Empty paddling pools, use lockable covers, and bar access to everything else when you are not using them. Hot tubs and Jacuzzis are not recommended for children under five as they cannot easily regulate their body temperature and can also suffer from dehydration due to the heat.

The greater attention you take to make your garden safe for your children, the more real freedom you can all enjoy.

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