Ages & Stages: 0-5: The Pitfalls of Indoor Playgrounds

Is it raining outside? Are the kids climbing the walls? Are you starting to whine right along with them? (Don’t worry. We’ve all been there.) Indoor playgrounds are a great place to let kids burn off steam. Just watch for these common health-and-safety hazards, suggests the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) — and this mom who’s done her time in the ball pits:

1. Big kid-little kid collisions. Don’t place your toddler in the rowdy big-kid section. (I once had to yank my then-preschooler out of the way as a big kid came careening down a slide into the ball pit.) Older kids love to hurl the balls at each other. Kids bury themselves in balls and can be hurt when another child leaps into the pit. Happily, most play centers have separate toddler/preschooler sections designed just for the younger set. Bringing younger children in the morning, before the rough-and-tumble crowd gets out of school, is helpful, too.

2. Icky ball pits. Just say no. They’re dangerous — and often just plain nasty. I’ve seen toddlers wading through ball pits with their diapers falling off. And the balls and pits often aren’t cleaned regularly. (The CPSC recommends a weekly cleaning of each ball — by hand — and a thorough sanitizing of the pit itself. But how often does that actually happen?) If the ball pit is located at a fast-food restaurant, take a good look at the restaurant itself. Does it seem to be clean and well-managed? If the restaurant floor is rarely mopped and old mustard spills are dried on the condiment bar, you can probably imagine how often the ball pit is cleaned and inspected.

3. Lack of supervision. Forget bringing a book and relaxing with a latte from the snack bar. (Sorry!) Indoor playgrounds require big-time vigilance. Is your child strong enough to pull himself up the rope ladder? Does he freak out inside the crawl tubes? Is he climbing up slide exits, sitting at the bottom of a slide or throwing (or licking!) ball-pit balls? It’s exhausting, but it’s a good idea to follow your child around.

4. Unsafe equipment. Check for damaged floor mats and frayed climbing ropes and netting. Make sure crawl tubes have windows or cutouts so you can see inside. And check to be sure tube slides are large enough so that kids can sit to slide down and don’t have to lie down head-first. If a narrow crawl tube empties into a narrow tube slide, your child can only go down head first, as there’s no room to sit up or turn around.

5. Strangulation hazards. Leave necklaces and other jewelry at home and avoid clothing with loose strings that can catch on equipment.

6. Getting lost in the crowd. Now’s the time to let your child wear her favorite hot-orange Sponge Bob T-shirt to make it easier to spot her. Avoiding peak weekend (i.e., birthday party) times makes it easier to keep track of your child, too. Many play centers have added side-door alarms, matching child-adult wristbands and other security measures to keep kids from wandering off — or even being abducted. But no snazzy security system beats staying on your feet and keeping your eyeballs peeled. (Just don’t forget to pick up that latte on the way home — you’re earned it!) 

Kathy Sena is a freelance journalist and mother of a 12-year-old son.