Play it safe outside

How to babyproof your backyard


Jill S. Browning


Ten tips Normally, my daughter won’t even touch vegetables on her plate, but one spring day she ate a wild mushroom in our backyard. After a nerve-wracking trip to the emergency room and an overnight hospital stay, she was fine. We learned the hard way not to mess with mushrooms—and that the backyard can be far from benign. Many parents assume that their yards are safe, but before you let your kids loose this spring, take a few safety precautions.

1 Dump all water. You don’t need an Olympic-size swimming pool to have a hazard on your hands. Dr. Karen Sheehan, medical director of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids of Chicago and a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, says the most serious and deadly backyard injuries are caused by baby pools. Never leave a child unsupervised, always empty pools after the kids finish playing and store them upside down.

2 Lock up chemicals. Dr. Michael Wahl, medical director of the Illinois Poison Center, says that while parents worry about fertilizer, it is pesticides that are most toxic. “To put it in perspective, with bioterrorism—such as the nerve gas that was released in the Tokyo subway—a lot of our pesticides are cousins to that,” Wahl explains. Close chemical products immediately after use and store them in a locked area.

3 Eliminate ropes. According to Sheehan, three-quarters of deaths on home playgrounds are caused by hanging from a rope, a cord or a rope swing. “People think, ‘Oh, it’s my backyard, I don’t need to watch them closely,’ and then the kids get themselves into trouble,” Sheehan says. Jewelry, hoods and even helmet chin straps also present strangulation risks, she says. 



4Tame the jungle gym. Falls off playground sets can cause severe injuries, reports Dr. George Koburov, medical director at Edward Hospital Pediatric Emergency in Naperville. Make sure kids use play equipment correctly. If they do fall, a soft landing is critical. Put down 12 inches of soft fill, such as special playground wood chips, under the play equipment. If you must have a trampoline, place a net around it, allow only one child on at a time and supervise closely.

5 Garden thoughtfully. Before heading to the nursery, visit to review the center’s toxic plant lists. Wahl suggests replacing toxic bushes, plants and shrubs with nontoxic varieties. With two small children himself, Wahl says he would never have a yew—an attractive yet poisonous shrub. While kids rarely consume enough to cause serious problems, toxic plants can cause illnesses. Don Guzan, president of the landscape company Root Feeders who lectures locally on plant care and safety, tells parents when landscaping to not only think about poisonous shrubs but to avoid plants with sharp thorns and needles, open water features such as ponds and fountains and tripping hazards.  “You’ve got to just watch the children like a hawk,” he adds. In case of ingestion, immediately call the Illinois Poison Center, (800) 222-1222.

6 Inspect toys. When left outside in the sandbox or rain, playthings can rust or break, creating sharp edges. Throw them out. Garage sales are a popular place for toys, but examine them carefully before buying or selling. Also check toys at and sign up there for automatic recall alerts. “It’s vigilance,” says Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger in Chicago, a nonprofit group working to improve the safety of children’s products. “Parents need to double-check to make sure toys are in good condition and haven’t been recalled.”

7 Ward off bites. Use insect repellent with up to 30 percent Deet to deter mosquitoes, ticks and flies. Spray sparingly on exposed skin and clothing (not under clothing) once a day. Also beware of animal bites. Studies show most pet-bite victims are bitten by a pet they know—half the time their own. Familiarize yourself with pets in the neighborhood to minimize potential problems. (For more on dogs and kids, see page 63.)

8 Save the skin. Childhood sunburns increase the chance of skin cancer later in life. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside, even on cloudy days. Also set grills out of the play zone to prevent burns. To prevent splinters, inspect decks and treat them with a penetrating sealer. Wearing shoes helps, too.

9 Contain the kids. You can’t keep your children in a bubble, but you can take steps to control the environment. “Fences keep the kids in and everyone else out,” says Dr. Michael W. Boettcher, a pediatrician from DuPage Medical Group General Pediatrics in Downers Grove. Cover window wells with steel or another strong material that can support the weight of an adult. Always supervise children on porches or balconies and repair loose railings or boards to prevent falls.

10 Stay alert. Barbecues often result in injuries because parents are distracted. “There are plenty of adults hanging around, just nobody really paying attention,” Koburov says. The same is true of drownings or near-drownings. Kids are also more likely to snack while playing, increasing the risk of choking. There’s no magic wand to make the backyard safe but precautions go a long way. The National SAFE KIDS Campaign ( estimates as many as 90 percent of accidental injuries can be prevented. The key, Sheehan says, is for parents “to balance the kids having fun and exploring their world while making it safe.” 


Jill S. Browning is a writer living in Downer’s Grove. She has three children, all of whom were born on the same day.


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