According to the National Safety Council, in 2009 nearly a quarter million children visited hospital emergency rooms due to playground injuries. With the nation’s students back in the classroom, the safety of kids traveling to and from school, and the precautions taken at school are a priority for both educators and parents. Here are some important things to remember.

Sidewalks, Traffic and Crosswalks

The trip to and from school can become so routine that safety considerations are taken for granted. Any time students are walking, biking or riding to school, they need to be aware of their surroundings and all the possible hazards they might face.

Children are not likely to travel in a straight line very often, but it’s vitally necessary they be reminded the sidewalk isn’t there to divide the lawn from the road. Sidewalks are for keeping people out of traffic. Sidewalks are for safety. This should be repeated to kids as often as necessary so they understand it. Sidewalk? Safe. Road? Not safe.

If there is no sidewalk, children should learn to walk on whichever side of the road allows them to face traffic. Younger children in particular can be hard for drivers to see. The slower the car is traveling, the easier it is for the driver to miss pedestrians on the passenger side of the vehicle. If the children are facing traffic as they walk, they can be sure they are avoiding vehicles. They will also be easier to notice because they will be moving at a faster speed relative to cars.

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Kids should know how to cross a street. They should know to look both ways, and to always cross at a crosswalk. If no crosswalks are available, they should at least try to cross at a corner or intersection. It is recommended that children under the age of ten cross only with an adult or crossing guard present. However, they should always look both ways to make sure there are no vehicles approaching.

There should also be continuous reminders to children not to run. Walking while crossing the street makes things much easier for drivers and it is safer if kids aren’t running in the street in the first place.

School Buses

Kids are always in a hurry. But they need to be reminded school buses must be given plenty of room. The recommendation is three large steps back when a bus is arriving at the curb. This not only prevents accidents, but also means disembarking students have room at the base of the steps.

Drivers behind a bus may not be able to see what is in front of a bus. This is true even if kids and adults in front of the bus can see their car. Children should be at least ten feet away from the bus before attempting to cross the street, and should be absolutely sure to follow all the previously discussed rules about traffic and crossings.

Both students and adults must be absolutely sure they can see the bus driver and that the bus driver can see them, especially if they are crossing the street. Children should not walk behind a bus. If they need to approach the bus from any direction other than to board at the entrance, they should first notify the bus driver. Otherwise they run the risk of being too close to the bus where the driver can’t see them.

While on a bus, kids should be reminded to behave just like when they are on an amusement park ride. No hands or arms outside. No standing, running, kicking, loud noises or thrown objects and, of course, remain seated until the bus comes to a full and complete stop.

Bikes

Wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle is now the law in most municipalities, so be on the safe side and make sure kids wear their bike helmets. Make sure children understand the rules of the road. If they don’t understand basic traffic safety they shouldn’t be riding their bikes to school.

Nearly all motor vehicle and police departments offer bike safety courses. This should be a priority for any kids who want to ride their bikes in general, not just to school. A bicycle safety course will teach the rules of the road. Most will also teach basic bicycle mechanics so riders will be able to recognize potential hazards before they become problems later. Some even offer a bike license which is a nice incentive for kids who might be less than enthusiastic about taking another class.

Playground Safety

When inspecting a playground, it’s all about the floor. Concrete and asphalt are no longer considered safe or satisfactory as a surface for any kind of playground equipment. Rubber mats or wood fibers are far superior cushions for the inevitable falls, tumbles and dropped items like glasses. If at all possible, cushioned areas should extend at least six feet around any permanent equipment like slides or swings. In fact, they should probably extend quite a bit further around the swings too.

Most injuries happen while climbing. Any piece of equipment like slides or overhead bars should be equipped with well maintained grips and traction appliances like handholds, railings and platforms. The supervising adults should be aware these things are not magic. Children have to be taught how to use them for grips and traction appliances to be useful. Make sure kids understand why they are there and make sure they use them.

Swings move. Anything that moves has the potential to hit someone. That’s why swings should be made of something other than wood or metal, as they can cause very serious injuries. There should be a lot of room around the swings. Whether adults like it or not, kids have a habit of running, jumping and launching from swings. The older they get, the more often this happens. They often underestimate their momentum. If another piece of equipment is nearby, and especially if it is occupied, put the brakes on the swings.

See-saws should have cushions (like tires) under them so they can’t hit the ground. Also be sure they don’t have adjustable chains or any sharp edges, as the combination of weight, speed and sharp edge could produce catastrophic injury.

Backpacks

We’ve all seen it at one time or another. The 50 pound kid with the 60 pound backpack. The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission estimates there are over 7300 backpack-related injuries treated by doctors or hospitals each year in the United States.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a backpack should be no more than 20 percent of the child’s weight. Overloaded backpacks can be an issue getting to and from school, as they create a shiftable weight on a bike and can be dropped, swung or lifted suddenly on a bus, potentially injuring students besides the owner.

Children should be reminded to wear both straps. The one-shoulder too-cool-for-you look has a much greater chance of landing Mr. or Ms. Cool in the hospital with back spasms or a lower back injury.

General Safety at School

Both the school and your child should have a full set of contact information. Kids should be able to recite the most important numbers and addresses by memory, and should have at least one copy of everything else filed with the school. A second copy could be stored in a classroom or locker. It is probably not a good idea to try and remind a child to carry it with them or in a backpack as it is too easily lost.

Parents should be aware of school policies regarding emergencies. Knowing where students will be in the event of an emergency will reduce confusion and reassure both parents and their kids everything will be taken care of if there is a problem.

Shoes are at the top of the list. Kids run. Kids jump. Kids climb. These things will happen. Stopping them from happening is like stopping high tide. It’s not going to happen. With that in mind, you must be certain the kids are wearing good quality shoes and that they remain tied/velcroed. The reason this is so important is the same as the playground climbing issue. Most major injuries will happen because of falls. Kids take to climbing the way ducks take to crackers, so you can be sure that at any given time of day, a significant portion of your kid’s school population will be airborne or off the ground or floor. Good shoes are a good way to prevent accidents.

At the other end of the injury spectrum is running. We’ve covered kids running. It’s what they do. Zero to bloody nose in three seconds. Teach them to avoid situations that are obvious injury hazards and to stop running if they see one. Here is a partial list:

  1. Approaching a closed door
  2. Anything on the floor. Even a rug.
  3. Any room with more than six pieces of furniture in it, no matter how far apart.
  4. Any room with more than three people in it, no matter how far apart.
  5. Anywhere near glass, no matter what kind of glass it is.
  6. Anywhere near food or drink, no matter what kind of food or drink it is.
  7. Anywhere that is not properly lit. If you can’t see all the walls, it’s not properly lit.
  8. While carrying anything other than sports equipment small enough to fit in their backpack. If carrying anything else, stop running.

Common Sense

The rules of physics have a way of training all of us from an early age. Kids learn very quickly what sharp, hot and not-cushioned mean, and the way they learn it is through gravity, momentum and thermodynamics. Parents and teachers do their best, but more often than not, the warning comes after the collision, burn or bruise, and there you have it.

Almost every breach of the safety envelope happens because kids underestimate their speed or altitude, or overestimate their ability to hold on, stop or maintain their balance. Like many adults, they are also largely blissfully unaware of what is going on around them. The people to consult on these matters are usually fathers, because they are the ones who will admonish all of the kids (and occasionally their wife, brother-in-law and other drivers) to pay attention.

This is a recommendation we can all consider good advice. Kids that are aware of what is going on, and who are aware of what the potential consequences are for any given action, are generally the kids that are least likely to fall off the monkey bars, run into an opening door or cause a four-car pileup at the intersection by chasing a model aircraft into the street.

The children who are paying attention will know better than to carry their juice box with them on the monkey bars. They will know better than to run full speed towards a closed door, and they’ll know that no matter what the justification, absent being chased by giant praying mantises, running into the street is always a bad idea.

Talking to Your Kids About Safety

In an age of never-ending full-color multiplayer 3D entertainment with stereo sound, trying to explain safety rules to your kids is like trying to disassemble a car engine with a plastic wrench. If you can make it a game, by all means try.

If not, make it a home school assignment. Put together a series of tests, homework and grades and offer generous incentives for successfully passing the safety class. Certificates are always a winner, especially if they can be prominently displayed in the house somewhere.

The thing not to do is make it a subject that is only covered after something goes wrong. Then it becomes nagging. Instead of leading to paying attention, it will lead to rolled eyes and resistance.

Key to your efforts is to communicate the importance of safety, because there is no time of day and no day of the week when safety shouldn’t be at the top of everyone’s priority list.