Kids health

Safeguard your backyard

Make the most of your outdoor living space with these kid-friendly safety tips

By Kiera Newman
Safeguard your backyard

It’s spring: Time to fling open the doors and let your kids run wild in the safety of your backyard. Yeah, right. My most terrifying moments in parenting — rushing my four-year-old to the hospital after a branch penetrated his eye, and discovering my one-year-old had just sampled some poisonous nightshade berries — happened in my own yard. There’s no doubt the children can get hurt in the backyard, but with a few simple precautions you can help keep them safe.

Scout out the sandbox

Next to playdough, sand is probably my kids’ favourite non-nutritional snack, but it can harbour some grisly germs. Toxoplasmosis and roundworms — both parasitic infections — can get into the sandbox or garden soil through animal feces, and be passed to your child when he touches his mouth. Illnesses range in severity from mild flu-like symptoms, to more serious internal infections. If you suspect your child may have come in contact with one of these parasites, see your doctor.

Safety tips
• Cover the sandbox when not in use and replace the sand every two years or so. If the sand gets “contaminated” via a diaper mishap or neighbourhood animal, trash it immediately, give the box a good clean and add new sand.

A leaning ladder is irresistible to a curious child, as is the plethora of mysterious instruments filling most tool boxes and sheds.

Safety tips
• Keep your tools locked up or hang them out of reach.
• Clean up thoroughly after working with tools, checking for dropped nails and sharp material scraps.
• When they’re old enough, give kids “safe” tools such as a gardening spade to inspire their own projects, and teach them to take care of their equipment — including cleaning up.

Help prevent falls

Whether they’re tumbling from the teeter-totter or slipping off the slide ladder, children are constantly falling. In fact, it’s the number one reason kids are hospitalized each year. But you can help your kids avoid serious spills by patrolling while they play.

Safety tips
• Younger children are more vulnerable to serious head and neck injuries. Keep your explorers from climbing by removing bottom ladder rungs from slides and make sure you follow toddlers closely.
• Cover play areas with six to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimetres) of soft material such as wood chips or sand.
• Keep your kids out of loose-fitting clothing and nix drawstrings, which can catch and cause strangulation.
• Safe Kids Canada does not recommend the use of trampolines, but if you choose to have one, adhere to these rules: no children under the age of six, one person at a time, no flips or somersaults, and adult supervision at all times.

Almost half of all reported poisonings involve children under six years old, but older children are also at risk: They may not understand warning labels. Fertilizers, pesticides, pool chemicals and some plants (see Mean and green) have poisons that can cause upset stomachs, rashes and even death. For more info, visit, or

Safety tips
• Keep all potential poisons (and in their original containers for future identification if needed).
• Ditch the pesticides and garden naturally. Get kids involved by paying them for each weed (with root) they collect. For more organic-gardening tips, visit

Zone off the BBQ

Barbecues stay hot long after they’re shut off, putting children at risk for painful burns.

Safety tips
• Designate a chef-only area around the barbecue and keep tables and gatherings at a distance. Use chalk to outline the no-go zone, or move the barbecue to a spot out of the fray.
• If municipal bylaws allow outdoor fires, keep a sharp eye on them when they’re lit and give them a thorough soaking with water when you’re done.

Mind your own beeswax

When it comes to dealing with bug bites and bee stings, your best defence is a good offence.

Safety tips
• Bees and their stinging relatives are attracted to strong smells and bright hues, so dress children in light colours, keep them fragrance-free and leave strong-smelling food inside.
• Provide drinks with straws to avoid mouth stings, and have children wear shoes and hats.
• If a bee or wasp lands on your child, tell her to stay still and blow on the bug lightly. If a bee stings someone, quickly scrape — don’t squeeze — the stinger out (wasps don’t leave one behind) using a credit card. Apply cold water or ice.
• An insect allergy may merit a call to 911. Watch for severe reactions such as hives, nausea, fainting or dizziness, difficulty breathing or extensive swelling.

Whether in a big pool or the small inflatable kind, nothing beats water fun on a hot day. But drowning can occur in as little as a few seconds so never leave kids unsupervised.

Safety tips
• Surround your pool with a high, four-sided fence that meets your municipal bylaws, and make sure little bodies can’t wriggle underneath. Gates should be self-closing, self-latching, and have childproof locks.
• Establish rules like no running or pushing, only one person at a time on diving boards and slides, and no diving in shallow water. Provide vigilant adult supervision when the pool area is open. For more info, see Taking the Plunge
• Standing water in wading pools is not only a risk to children who can drown in just a few centimetres – it can also be a breeding ground for bacteria. Drain the pool when the fun’s over, and keep it tipped so that it won’t fill up with rainwater.

Tried and true

OK, so you’ve heard these before, but they’re worth repeating:

Keep ’em clean. You probably wash your child’s hands after she finishes making mud pies in the garden, but don’t forget to give them a scrub after she makes her sandcastles too.

Be sun-smart. Slather on a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 every hour, and stick to indoor or shaded activities when the sun is at its strongest (usually 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Tip: Keep older kids both stylish and safe by letting them pick out their own sun-protective clothing or swimwear, hats and sunglasses.

Janet Grabowski, Winnipeg-based paediatrician
Linda Ward, programs coordinator, Safe Kids Canada
Jack Smith, president, Canada Safety Council
Heather Ferries, nurse educator (poisons), Ontario Poison Centre at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children

Mean and green

Some of Canada’s most common plants are toxic to varying degrees. For a complete list or more information on the plants below, visit

Bluebell: all parts
English holly: berries
Foxglove: all parts
Hydrangea: flower buds
Morning glory: seeds
Virginia creeper: berries and leaves

Sun signs

Kids, especially infants and preschoolers, are particularly vulnerable to sun and heat. Protect them from:

Dehydration Occurs when you lose more water than you take in. Symptoms include a dry mouth, dark yellow urine, dizziness or lightheadedness (a thirsty kid is likely already dehydrated). Dehydration can cause mild to severe heat-related illnesses, so be sure to keep your child well hydrated.

Heat cramps Painful spasms, usually in the leg and stomach muscles. Move your child to a cooler place and lightly massage the muscles. Encourage him to drink fluids frequently.

Heat exhaustion Symptoms include nausea and headache. Look for heavy sweating with cool, pale or flushed skin. Remove your child to a cool place and replace clothing with cool wet towels. Have him drink water (see above). If vomiting occurs, get medical help immediately.

Heatstroke Also known as sunstroke, this serious medical emergency requires immediate hospitalization (call 911, remove clothing and sponge with cool water). Look for a high body temperature (103°F/39.4°C) and red, hot, dry skin. Other symptoms include a rapid pulse, shallow breathing, headache and confusion. Remove clothing and sponge with cool water.

This article was originally published on Apr 10, 2007

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