It was one of the longest nights that we had encountered since becoming parents. Our newly one-year-old girl was vomiting all night long. (My husband and I joined her shortly after.) It was her first big illness and we were terrified. We called the on-call pediatrician several times that night. We monitored her urine output and worked diligently to help her increase her fluid intake but we still felt helpless. As parents, we didn’t want to see our child in pain or discomfort and it was especially difficult because there wasn’t much that we could do to make it any easier on her.

While we sat up that night, drenched in worry, I tried to figure out where she could have possibly caught this bug. Eventually, I determined that the culprit had to be the new play place that we had just started going to a few weeks prior. It had mini trampolines for jumping, foam stairs for climbing, a beam for balancing, and a ball pit for playing. Back when I was a child, my mother would question the cleanliness of the ball pits when we went to fast food restaurants or play places.

As my daughter was throwing up, I was scolding myself for allowing her in such a potentially unsanitary environment. It was adorable watching her play in there, exploring her new environment in a sea of rainbow. What’s not as adorable is that ball pits are a fantastic breeding ground for illnesses like E.coli, rotavirus, and salmonella, which can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, worried parents, and sleepless nights.

The place I took her to was pretty clean and I never saw any dirty diapers or syringes in the ball pit but that doesn’t mean that it is free from danger. According to an article on WebMD, some manufacturers of ball pits recommend cleaning them at least once a week. Chances are, most places with ball pits do not follow this advice. As a matter of fact, on our first visit to this particular play place, my daughter spit up on the foam slope that goes into the ball pit. (Luckily it didn’t get on the balls.) The employee gave me a wet cloth to wipe it up. I’m not sure what sanitation measures they take beyond that but I doubt that they go through the trouble of removing and washing hundreds of plastic balls once a week. WebMD even suggests that parents ask facilities with ball pits if the pits are “spot cleaned at least once a day.” I never asked that. I didn’t think to question the sanitary practices of a somewhat prestigious facility that appeared to be very clean…but looks can be deceiving.

An article on Parents explains that playgrounds are actually filthier than public restrooms because, unlike some playgrounds, restrooms are frequently maintained. In the article, Kelly Reynolds, PhD, associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Public Health, in Tucson was quoted saying, “Restrooms tend to get disinfected often, but playground equipment almost never gets cleaned.” From mucus on the monkey bars to saliva on the slide, playgrounds are covered in icky stuff. Whether it’s a toddler in a leaky diaper or a kindergartener using their hand as a tissue, kids share more than just toys. They also share those pesky things called germs.

Erin Carr-Jordan, a child psychologist and mom of four, decided to do some investigative work of her own after visiting a McDonald’s play area with her son. She took samples from various indoor playgrounds in 11 states and with the help of a microbiologist and an analytical lab, she had the samples tested. The samples she took were both from chains and independently owned facilities. They were in varying socioeconomic areas but the results did not discriminate. They were horrifying.

According to Erin Carr-Jordan, “The microbial results revealed pathogens that cause meningitis, food-borne illness, skin, hair, eye infections, and more.” She found over 13 types of disease-causing pathogens. “Among my bacterial findings: Staph aureus, Pseudomonas, E. coli, Bacillus cereus and Coliforms. These can cause everything from nausea and vomiting, to skin infections, meningitis and death,” wrote Carr-Jordan. As a result of her research, Carr-Jordan teamed up with Dr. Annissa Furr to create the non-profit organization, Kids Play Safe, which uses microbiological testing to increase awareness in an attempt to bring about change and influence legislation.

As tempting as it may be, we can’t live in fear and try to shield our children from ever encountering a germ. They should live full lives and be given the opportunity to build their immune systems but there are things that we can do to protect them. The Kids Play Safe website has a list of locations which they have certified. There are also things that you can do to protect your children in non-certified locations. WebMD suggests that children take a bath after going in ball pits. Parents suggests cleaning your children’s hands with an alcohol-based hand-gel at the park when the kids are done playing. Also, while they’re playing be sure to tell them to avoid touching their mouths, noses, or eyes. The mouth, nose, and eyes allow germs easy access into the body. There’s no need to invest in child-sized hazmat suits just yet. As parents, it is our responsibility to find a balance between keeping our kids safe but still allowing our kids to be kids. I suppose one day we’ll return to that play place but I’ll be sure to bring some hand sanitizer and run a bath when we get home.

Megan Whitty

Megan is a stay-at-home mom and wife. Before she became a stay-at-home mom, she was a certified pharmacy technician. Her opportunity to stay home with her daughter has allowed her to pursue her passion for writing. She writes for Her View from Home and is also a Spoke Contributor on Red Tricycle. When Megan isn't writing, she's hanging out with her one year old, trying out new craft ideas from Pinterest, and experimenting with toddler-approved recipes.