At the local playground, budding gymnasts swing from monkey bars, older kids barrel over a play structure, and preschoolers play in the sandbox. Other children swing so high they look like they might flip over, and some decide a slide is only fun if they’re going down backward, head first, and two at a time.

While watching their children have fun and burn off energy, most parents assume their local playground is safe, especially if it has new equipment. But fearless, active children with seemingly limitless energy can quickly turn a playground into a danger zone. Playgrounds with poor design, hazardous surfaces, and no one to maintain them can also lead to more frequent injuries.

Playground accidents are the leading cause of injury to children in elementary school, according to Safe Kids USA. In 2009, nearly 220,000 children age 14 and younger were treated in hospital emergency rooms for playground-related injuries. And from 2001-08, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission investigated 40 deaths out of 100 total that resulted from playground-related injuries; in the investigated deaths, asphyxiation or hanging was the most frequent cause, possibly from a loose piece of clothing being caught on the equipment. Falls can also cause serious injury.

Some states regulate playground equipment, requiring warning labels and proper surfacing. Still, parents should be vigilant about making sure home, public, and school playgrounds are safe. Erika Schwartz, a physician and the medical director of Cinergy Health in Aventura, Fla., shares these tips for keeping your child safe on the playground.

  • Supervise your child. “Nothing will make up for adult supervision,” Schwartz says. Whether it’s a parent, a teacher’s aide, or a teacher, an adult needs to watch kids on the playground at all times. “No talking, no reading, no texting,” Schwartz says. “In the blink of an eye, an accident can happen that could have easily been prevented.”

  • Tour the playground. When you’re enrolling your child in school or in a summer camp program, ask to see the playground. And then check the playground each year. “It may have been redone over the summer,” Schwartz says.

  • Inspect the surface. A soft surface is critical for preventing head and other injuries. The ground should be covered a foot deep with hardwood fiber mulch, fine sand, or shredded rubber, according to Safe Kids Northeast Florida, a chapter of the national organization. Grass, soil, and packed earth are not so good, Schwartz says, and pavement is totally unacceptable. The soft surface should extend out at least 6 feet in all directions around the equipment. Always be on the lookout for broken glass and other hazards.

  • Separate children of different ages. Older kids and littler ones need separate places to play. If there is only one community playground, consider having separate hours for younger and older children. “Little ones don’t last long on the playground,” Schwartz says. “You can take the little ones in when it’s time to get ready for bed and let the older kids play later.”

  • Watch for overcrowding. If there are too many children on the playground, leave and come back later. If your school’s playground gets too crowded, seek help from the principal in scheduling playground time. If kids are getting into fights on the playground, there’s a good chance it’s too crowded.

  • Watch for height. Children love the thrill of climbing high, but 12 feet is high enough, Schwartz says. And that’s for the big kids. Little ones should play on lower equipment. “Calibrate the height of the kid with the height of equipment,” she says. The less distance they have to fall, the less chance of injury. Also, make sure play structures are not placed too close together. When children jump from high surfaces, they jump out, not straight down.

  • Watch for loose clothing. Make sure clothing is free of drawstrings and fits snugly. Likewise, no necklaces, purses, or scarves.

  • Properly maintain the playground. It may take some nagging, but playgrounds must be maintained. Find out who’s responsible in your community or school and let them know about any problems, such as rust, sharp edges, or broken parts.

  • Let them play! It’s tempting to not let children play on the playground because of dangers and, in the case of schools, fear of liability. However, the answer is closer supervision, not playground avoidance. “Kids should be outside playing,” Schwartz says. “They need those breaks.”

Playgrounds are as much a part of childhood as blue jeans and mac and cheese. With a little extra vigilance, parents can make sure their child doesn’t get hurt. “Physical activity is crucial to the development of children,” Schwartz says. “It’s how they become healthy adults.”

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, winning several awards, including a public service citation from the Associated Press for her exposure of grade inflation. Her freelance work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald, and Adoptive Families magazine. Ghezzi lives in Avondale Estates, Georgia with her family, which includes husband, Jason; 4-year-old daughter, Celia; and geriatric mutt, Albany.

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.