Start the New Year with Habits for Safe Play
Prevent injuries -- and still have fun -- with rules for proper use and storage of toys.
By Jean Yaeger
Toys gifted during the holidays are meant to bring joy and adventure. But toys can also pose risks for choking, head injury and other dangers.
A curious toddler might swallow a Barbie shoe or stick a craft bead up their nose. Older children might crowd onto the trampoline or shoot a Nerf gun at someone’s face. Teens might want to ride their bicycles and scooters without a helmet.
That’s why the safety experts at Cook Children’s urge parents to implement the best practices to help keep kids of all ages from getting hurt with toys. January is the time to set intentions for the new year … a fresh start for rules when it comes to how your family members use toys and put them away.
“Injuries prevent fun. We want to be able to have fun with our toys, and in order to do that, we have to be safe with them,” said Ashley Pagenkopf, MS, CCLS, Child Life Specialist at Cook Children's Emergency Department (ED). “Safety produces fun.”
National statistics from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission show an estimated 209,500 toy-related injuries were treated in hospital EDs across the country in 2022. Cuts and abrasions accounted for 41% of those ED visits. Almost half were injuries to the patient’s head and face.
At Cook Children’s in the year between October 2022 and September 2023, our ED saw patients with injuries stemming from:
- 15 in bicycle collisions with automobiles
- 52 on bicycles
- 27 on scooters
- 25 on skateboard or hoverboard
- 20 on skates or rollerblades
- 106 on trampolines
The data from the Cook Children’s ED also included 93 injured ATV riders, including five fatalities. Additionally, the ED treated 29 patients hurt on go-karts and golf carts in the 2022-2023 year.
Sharon Evans, trauma injury prevention coordinator at Cook Children’s, said parents need to understand the risks and be vigilant about teaching and enforcing rules for safe use of toys. She especially emphasizes the need to wear a helmet on any toy with wheels.
“Kids need to be taught the importance of using a helmet on EVERY ride, how to look for cars pulling in and out of driveways and on the street, crossing only at intersections,” Evans said. “They don’t learn all this by one parent lecture. You have to be with them and model this behavior until they are able to reproduce it on every ride.”
What’s most important for parents to remember? Here are key tips:
- Get rid of the packaging right away when a new toy is unboxed. Plastic bags, bubble wrap and packing peanuts can be hazardous for a young child.
- Read the warning labels and instruction manuals. Show your child how to use the toy properly.
- Follow the age range listed by the toy manufacturer. If it says 4+, then it’s not appropriate for a 3-year-old. And be mindful of your child’s maturity and any developmental delays that could affect their readiness for a particular item. Just because your child is 4 years old, they might not be suited quite yet for a toy labeled 4+. “As a parent you have the ability to say ‘We’re going to put this up for a while,’” Evans said.
- If assembly is required, finish the job completely and correctly. A screw only partially screwed in can wind up in a child’s mouth.
- Watch for magnets and batteries in toys. If swallowed, they can cause a fatal injury or serious harm to the throat, stomach and intestines.
- Be aware of recalls issued for toys identified as potential choking or fire hazards, containing unsafe amounts of lead, or other concerns.
- Make sure older siblings keep things out of reach. That includes game pieces, mini LEGOs, makeup kits etc. Evans recommends finding a place and time when babies and toddlers aren’t nearby. “There may have to be rules where the older child can play with the small toys only when the younger child is asleep. Or put the toys up on a table or counter where they are out of the younger child’s reach,” Evans said.
- Pick up after playtime. Plastic bins and secure lids from the dollar store are smart and affordable ways to contain your family’s toys.
Parents should set the expectations and then give their kids frequent reminders to help them stick to the family rules. Children might push back on the limit of two jumpers at a time on the trampoline or the requirement to wear a helmet on the scooter or bicycle. But it’s important to be consistent. And be ready to follow through with consequences if a child breaks the rules.
Pagenkopf said parents should reinforce again and again the conversations about putting away the toys that are risky for a little brother or sister. It’s also important to model the habits you want to instill, she said. For example: Parents should always wear a helmet when riding their bikes, so that kids understand that safety rules apply to everyone in the family.
Another tip is to praise your child for using and storing toys properly. “Say ‘Hey, thanks for having your helmet on.’ ‘Thanks for putting your toys away,’” Pagenkopf said. “Kids are so responsive to positive reinforcement.” They’ll repeat the praised behavior.
Not all toy-related injuries can be prevented. But when a family makes safe habits the norm, they reduce the odds of a severe injury that requires a trip to the ED. It takes consistent practice by children and parents.
“There’s an intentionality and a mindfulness in it,” Pagenkopf said. “Not being safe is what steals fun away.”