Children's Hospital Colorado

Outdoor Safety for Kids

A young girl wearing a pink shirt safely swings outdoors in a park.

Outdoor fun almost always involves some degree of risk. That certainly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but it is important to remain cautious and informed. Stay on the safe side with our experts’ answers to your top outdoor safety questions below.

Any time your child gets on a toy with wheels he or she should always wear a helmet. A helmet protects against skull fractures and other head injuries, which can be serious, permanent and even fatal. Wrist guards are a good idea for skateboards and rollerblades, especially when kids are learning, as they can prevent wrist fractures in a fall. For kids doing tricks at the skate park, additional protective gear like elbow guards and kneepads aren’t a bad idea to protect against scrapes and bruises.

And remember: kids are more likely to wear helmets if parents wear them, too.

—Bridget Younger, Med, ATC/R

The brain’s risk-evaluating and decision-making capabilities aren’t fully developed until the mid-20s, which means that even young adults are still developmentally incapable of fully understanding the risks of handling explosives. In teenagers, the frontal lobe — the part of the brain that asks, “Is this a good idea?” — is not fully formed. It’s not that they don’t have a frontal lobe. And they can use it. They’re just going to access it more slowly.

This is especially true when the explosives in question are packaged as toys, as fireworks are. They are most definitely not toys. Case in point: last year on Independence Day, New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was playing with fireworks at a family picnic when one blew up his hand. Pierre-Paul lost all of his index finger and the tip of his thumb, and he now has a flap that covers his middle finger.

Even sparklers, which most people don’t even consider fireworks, can heat to skin-melting temperatures as hot as 1800 degrees to 3000 degrees, depending on the fuel and oxidizer used. That’s more than sufficient to cause severe skin burns or ignite a kid’s clothing. And they can maintain those temperatures for a long time after they fizzle out. One common summer burn injury results when one child throws a burned-out sparkler in the yard and another steps on it.

The bottom line is, with kids, the only safe way to play with fireworks is not to do it at all.

—Dwayne Smith, Injury Prevention Program Manager

Only adults should be responsible for starting and extinguishing campfires, and they should happen only in designated areas, like a fire pit with stones around it. It’s also a good idea to set up furniture or draw a circle about 3 feet from the fire on any side and explain to kids that it’s a boundary, and they shouldn’t get any closer to the fire than the line.

If kids are going to be interacting with the fire, as in making s’mores, close adult supervision is essential at all times. Burns often result when kids play with hot or burning marshmallows or accidentally whack other kids or adults with hot or flaming marshmallows or sticks.

Another important point about campfires is that embers can retain their heat for hours after the campfire goes out — and they can inflict a nasty burn. This is especially true with younger children, as their skin is a lot thinner than that of adults or older kids. This means burns happen faster and burn deeper with less exposure.

Of course, given the choice, we’d much rather kids be around campfires than fireworks. But just exercise caution at all times.

—Ashley Banks, BSN, RN

Exercising in the heat and humidity can lead to cramps, heat exhaustion and sometimes heatstroke, the most severe form of heat-related illness. Children with medical conditions like sickle cell traits, diabetes and obesity, as well as kids who take stimulants or anti-depressants, are at increased risk of heat-related illness.

Muscle cramps are often the first sign of trouble. Usually triggered during heavy exercise in heat, these cramps typically aren’t serious, and can be treated by stretching, resting in a cool area, and replacing lost fluids and salts with water, a sports drink, or, ideally, an oral rehydration solution that includes a proper balance of sugar and electrolytes, such as Pedialyte, in order to replenish fluid and salt lost through sweat. The worst thing your child could drink during exercise (or really ever): energy drinks, which contain caffeine and a host of other chemicals and supplements that can make the problem worse.

More worrisome is heat exhaustion. In addition to muscle cramps, symptoms may include excessive thirst, nausea, cool or clammy skin, weakness, severe muscle aches, heavy sweating, dizziness or heightened body temperature (a mild fever). Children may also have trouble thinking or focusing. The same basic guidelines apply. Get your child to a cool or shady place and have him or her rehydrate. Also remove any excess clothing and apply ice packs or cool, wet cloths to your child’s skin. If they show more severe symptoms (such as fainting), seek immediate medical attention.

The most serious condition is heatstroke, which develops when the body becomes unable to regulate its temperature. Left untreated, heatstroke can result in severe brain damage and even death. In fact, heatstroke is the third-leading cause of exercise-related deaths in athletes. Symptoms include confusion, dizziness, vomiting, seizures, rapid heartbeat, body temperatures in excess of 104 degrees and skin that is hot and dry to the touch.

If your child displays any of the symptoms of heatstroke, or becomes unresponsive, seek immediate emergency medical help. If possible, place the child in a tub of cold or icy water. If not, placing ice packs on the neck, armpits and groin is the next-best option.

Although heat illness can be scary, it can be prevented. Make sure your child stays properly hydrated and well rested and eats a balanced diet. Have your child wear loose-fitting, absorbent or moisture-wicking clothing and make sure coaches know how to acclimate athletes to training in the heat. Try to avoid heavy exercise between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., the hottest hours of the day.

Dr. Emily Stuart

In the vast majority of cases, rides like roller coasters and Tilt-A-Whirls are regulated, inspected and perfectly safe. At amusement parks where the rides are fixed in position, professionally maintained and run by trained operators, safety is a virtual non-issue. The Tilt-A-Whirl on a stomach full of hot dogs, on the other hand, may be cause for concern.

Traveling carnivals and fairs are also generally safe. However, the type of show that sets up for a few days before packing up and moving onto the next town — where the contractor may be hiring locals or staffing with volunteers — is worth keeping an eye on. While you’re waiting in line, observe the ride operator for a few cycles and see what they’re doing. Are they simply letting people on and hitting start? Or are they walking around to make sure bars and belts are secured? And are they making sure riders are the proper height?

If something doesn’t look right or you don’t feel comfortable, trust your instinct and steer clear.

—Dwayne Smith, Injury Prevention Program Manager

Generally, if it’s described as a “climbing wall,” it’s in a controlled environment. At Children’s Hospital Colorado, we actually have one at our south campus in Highlands Ranch. Climbing walls can help kids with both gross and fine motor skills, muscle development and coordination. And if they’re in a controlled environment such as a recreation center, they’re often going to involve trained spotters, harnesses and lots of pads.

So in short, if the climbing wall is in a controlled environment, it’s generally safe.

—Dwayne Smith, Injury Prevention Program Manager

Short answer: no.

Long answer: trampolines are one of the most dangerous toys on the market. That netting can stop kids from flying off the trampoline and landing on the hard ground, sure. But it might not hold a bigger kid, like a teenager, and many trampoline injuries result from two kids colliding, falling on top of each other or banging their heads together, resulting in potentially serious head injuries. Jumping on trampolines can also result in strains, sprains, fractures and other injuries. The risk of injury is so high that the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly discourages the use of trampolines at home.

If your kids seem desperate to jump on a trampoline, indoor commercial trampoline parks offer a more controlled — and therefore safer — environment than a backyard trampoline. Or better yet, sign them up for a gymnastics class.

Bottom line: virtually any recreational activity involves some element of risk. The key is to mitigate the risks (besides proper adult supervision at all times) is by choosing them wisely. In the world of safety choices, a trampoline is not one of the wise ones.

—Dwayne Smith, Injury Prevention Program Manager

It really depends on their ability and where you go. For example, if you’re going to be hiking four miles one way into a box canyon, it pays to ask, “Has my child ever walked long distances before?” keeping in mind that, round trip, the total will be eight miles. If the answer is no, it’s a good idea to test your child’s ability in a lower-stakes environment. Pick a shorter hike, and see how they do.

It’s not that kids can’t do tough hikes, even fourteeners. The most important thing is to consider whether they’re physically prepared for it, and always to respect the environment. Weather can be unpredictable, especially in the mountains, where terrain might obscure the view of a storm so that you don’t see it coming until it’s right on top of you. Lightning can be deadly. Dehydration and altitude sickness are also very real concerns.

Plus, tired, hot, hungry kids tend to bring outings to abrupt ends. It’s important to ask yourself, “Will this be safe?” But it’s also worth asking, “Will this even be fun?”

—Michael S. Witten, MS, CSCS

As with hiking, it’s important to always respect the environment. This is especially true with rafting. The fact is, adults drown on commercial rafting trips every year. Mountain rivers and rapids can be unpredictable, and since the water in mountain rivers comes primarily from snowmelt, it’s very cold. A water temperature of 65 degrees may not sound all that cold or dangerous, because people mentally compare it to a 65-degree air temperature. They are not the same. A water temperature of even 65 degrees can cause muscles to seize up, and seized muscles can render even the best swimmers unable to get out of a potentially dangerous situation.

Ideally, you’ll want at least one adult per child on your river trip. It’s also a good idea to talk to your kids about rafting safety beforehand, emphasizing focus and awareness of surroundings.

If you do decide to take kids rafting, make sure they’re solid swimmers and that they wear proper gear. Also, do some research and pick a reputable rafting company and a relatively easy trip.

—Dwayne Smith, Injury Prevention Program Manager

The big thing to look out for with playgrounds is good surfacing. A surface like pea gravel, rubber tiles, mats or woodchips absorbs the impact of a kid falling off the equipment to a much greater degree than, say, asphalt. The good news is that many states (including Colorado) have regulations requiring such surfacing on playgrounds, so most municipal and school playgrounds in Colorado do an excellent job of surfacing with impact-absorbing materials.

In addition, the equipment has also often been updated. The most dangerous playground equipment has been phased out, replaced or outright banned over the years. What this means is that playgrounds are pretty safe places for kids of all ages to play and run around.

That said, it always pays to keep a close eye on them.

—Dwayne Smith, Injury Prevention Program Manager

Just Ask Children's Newsletter