- Explain why creating and maintaining a safe environment can be challenging, especially in family child care settings.
- List key components of safety in the environment and ways you would ensure a safe environment.
- Describe how to appropriately handle materials and objects such as; family pets, medication storage, and firearm storage.
Children are amazing explorers. They are constantly experimenting with items in their environment to better understand how their own bodies, and objects in their world, work. In addition, children enjoy a sense of autonomy. Some degree of control and influence over their environment provides children with the independence they need to develop not only their self-confidence, but also their regulatory abilities. One of the most challenging but rewarding parts of creating a safe environment is recognizing how to support and foster children’s healthy desire for independence and exploration, while also making sure that the materials and space available to them are safe. As a family child care provider, it can be even more challenging, as you potentially have to create and maintain environments that are simultaneously engaging and safe for infants through school-agers, as well as your family members.
In the Learning Environments Course, we will address in detail how to create and maintain an engaging environment that supports the development of a wide age-range of children. However in this lesson, we will focus on maintaining safety in the physical space.
Special Precautions with Young Children
Although all children are explorers, infants, toddlers, and some children with special needs are special in that they often use all their senses, including taste, to understand the world around them. In addition, children that have recently become mobile enjoy exploring every nook and cranny in their environment. For these reasons, your strong supervision (addressed in Lesson Two), as well as your attention to the environment are critical in ensuring safety for the youngest in your care.
In addition, young children do not have the practical experience adults have had in their interactions with the world around them to know what may cause injury. Child development is a factor in the risk of injury. Development occurs in stages and it will be a while before infants, toddlers, or even preschoolers develop the thinking and reasoning ability to keep themselves safe. As young children develop their understanding of the world around them, they become more aware of what is safe and what is not. Even school-agers, who are more capable of anticipating consequences of unsafe actions, are not perfect at reasoning about safety. Adults therefore are 100 percent responsible for creating and maintaining a safe environment.
Here are few things to keep in mind:
- Young children are often unable to predict hazardous situations.
- Young children, particularly infants and toddlers, may be unable to see cause-effect relationships in their interactions.
- Young children have more limited vocabularies and may not understand sentences like "That is dangerous."
- Young children, particularly infants and toddlers, lack impulse control to the point they cannot always stop the urge to act, even in unsafe situations.
- Infants and toddlers have limited ability to coordinate movements and maintain balance.
What Do Safe Environments for Young Children Look Like?
When thinking about safe environments, we have to consider facilities, how the physical space is arranged and organized, and the condition of the materials in the environment.
Facility refers to your physical home and furnishings. You want your home free of hazards, set up to prevent injuries and accidents, and arranged so you can easily exit in emergencies. In Lesson One, you were presented with safety checklists that helped you consider some items that make your home a safe environment (for example, that floors are in good repair and have nonskid surfaces, rugs are skid-proof, etc.). In the activity below, you will see a reminder of some of the critical items to consider in terms of your physical facility. Your family child care administrator or your state licensing agency may have additional items to consider, so make sure to review and follow protocols. For many states or agencies, a fire safety check or a health safety inspection by the appropriate authorities may also be required before you are permitted to care for children in your home.
One of the biggest things to remember about the physical facility is to clean up hazards as soon as they arise. For example, if a child accidently spills pudding during snack or dumps water out of the sensory bin, it is important to clean up these spills immediately to prevent injury. To prevent accidents, you should have cleaning materials stored away, but easily accessible to address these incidents.
We often forget that noise level is an aspect of the physical environment. The National Association for Family Child Care suggest that your environment should be, “pleasant, not over stimulating or distracting. The provider chooses music and other recordings that the children enjoy. At least half the time there is no background music, TV, radio, or other recordings.” Your materials and facility should be such that you can adequately hear all the children in your care, including infants’ more quiet coos and gurgles.
Physical Arrangement and Organization of Space
In arranging the space, you want to make sure that the pathways to exits are clear, with no furniture or materials in the way. In addition, the following techniques will help to support safety in the indoor environment:
- Using low, open shelving: This promotes independence and prevents toys from falling on children.
- Labeling shelves: This encourages encourage children to clean up after themselves, preventing tripping hazards with abandoned toys.
- Creating clearly defined interest areas: This promotes engagement and helps create clear traffic patterns that prevent running and collisions. Try to place quiet play ideas away from more active or loud play ideas.
- Providing a variety of materials. This keeps children appropriately engaged, using time that might have been spent on inappropriate running, jumping, and climbing.
These environmental set-up ideas go hand-in-hand with good supervision; they help support strong supervision by maintaining visibility and giving children adequate cues about how to use and care for the space.
Although these are important strategies, they can sometimes be more challenging to execute in a multi-age environment like family child care, as the materials, or even the available furniture and its placement, may be different for children at different developmental levels. It will be important that you create appropriate spaces for all children in your care. For example, where older children can play board games or use small pieces, like Legos, these spaces should not jeopardize the safety of younger children. Perhaps you will keep particular manipulatives and materials out of reach but can easily get them down for a specific activity or when older children request. It will also be important to communicate with your preschool and school-age children about how critical it is that certain materials are used in certain places and properly stored away when finished. It is never too early to help children understand the collective effort needed to maintain the safety of their environment. Are all the colored pencils collected and stored face down? Were all the toy cars placed back in their container, and sealed if you also care for infants? You definitely can and should ask for children’s assistance, but it is ultimately your responsibility as the supervising adult who ensures items are used and put away properly.
We will discuss this more in the Learning Environment course, but also try to remember that less can be more. Although it is important to have a well-stocked early-childhood environment, you do not need to have every toy or material imaginable available to children at all times. Too many items out at once can make the space cluttered, which can lead to safety accidents. Too many items can also be overwhelming and not foster the kind of thoughtful play and engagement we want to support in young children. Try to keep a critical eye on what materials, furniture, and placement make sense based on the children’s current interests and developmental levels. Think about what materials should be low, in shelves near the ground, for infants and toddlers to access, and which materials should be placed higher or locked away until needed.
You also need to consider how the available furniture works for the children in your care — for example, think carefully about the placement of shelving or cabinetry, if bookshelves are secured against the wall, and if it is possible to create a safe indoor climbing space for young children (this would need an appropriate fall zone). Every time you enroll a new child, you should consider how he or she will function safely in the new environment.
As discussed in Lesson Two, children over 6 may be out of your sight for brief periods of time (NAFCC, 2013), but you should always be able to hear them and be able to do frequent visual checks. This may mean that you want to create some play or work spaces for older children that are adjacent to the main area in which you care for younger children. This can help keep the available materials and spaces more age-appropriate and safe for all.
It is not appropriate to keep young children in a confined playpen while they are awake unless it is to keep them safe briefly while a provider uses the restroom. However, it is appropriate to strategically place gates and barriers in your home so that young children do not have access to unsafe areas and to help keep children in your line of sight. Make sure you select safe barriers and gates, where children could not trap their heads or pinch their fingers. Check out these other important tips from the Consumer Product Safety Commission on childproofing your home: http://www.cpsc.gov/en/Safety-Education/Safety-Guides/Kids-and-Babies/Childproofing-Your-Home--12-Safety-Devices-To-Protect-Your-Children/
Providing Appropriate Privacy — Balancing it with Safety
Good design always offers children places they can go to decompress and be alone. It can be an overwhelming world for children to be with others all day, especially when they are just learning how to recognize and address strong emotions. We will talk more about creating soft, comforting spaces in the Learning Environments course. However, it is important that you can see and hear young children at all times — even when they are in spaces designed for privacy. Hence, it is important to design your privacy spaces with open tops, low barriers, or sheer draperies.
Although older children should have privacy in the bathroom, it is important that you can still hear children if the bathroom door is closed and that, in the event of an emergency, you must be able to immediately access a child if he or she locks a bathroom door. Children should not be able to lock themselves inside the bathroom.
Finally, we must consider the condition of the materials in the environment. Look for these items daily and remove them from the area (Caring for Our Children, 2011):
- Missing or broken parts
- Protrusion of nuts and bolts
- Rust and chipping or peeling paint
- Sharp edges, splinters, and rough surfaces
- Stability of handrails
- Visible cracks
- Stability of nonanchored large play equipment (e.g., playhouses)
- Wear and deterioration
- Broken or worn electrical fixtures or cords
Toys and materials should meet safety regulations and be appropriate for the age and development of children using them. Check age guidelines on all materials, including art and sensory materials. More information about today’s safe toys and materials can be found here: http://nrckids.org/CFOC (and http://nrckids.org/CFOC/TOC see chapter 5 at http://nrckids.org/CFOC/Database/5 in particular). Also see the Think Toy Safety resource for more information about selecting safe toys and materials.
Make sure all materials in your care environment, including plants, are nontoxic. Check with your local gardening store for a list of toxic plants. You can also check with your local poison control center (1-800-222-1222). Check with your installation environmental health staff or community health nurse to get a list of dangerous plants in your area.
By law, manufacturers must notify the public of toys and equipment that are recalled. It is important that you occasionally check to make sure that the toys and equipment in your home have not been recalled. You should establish a system to check recalled items or sign up to receive email updates about recalled items. A list of recalls can be found at http://www.cpsc.gov
Because young children, especially infants and toddlers, often mouth objects, all toys and materials within their reach must not be small enough to be a choking hazard. Small objects are those that are less than 1¼-inch diameter and 2½ inches long. It is important to remember that many sensory choices can also be choking hazards or unsafe for very young children unless they are vigilantly monitored or adapted. A choke tube can test whether toys or materials are too small and could pose a choking hazard. Choke tubes are relatively inexpensive and useful to keep in your home.
Balloons, in particular, should never be part of your child care setting, as they are a severe choking hazard.
If you have pets in your home, they are undoubtedly an important part of your family; however, care must be taken to assure the safety of the family child care program. Part of creating and maintaining a safe child care environment includes the appropriate management of pets (NAFCC, 2013).
- Parents must be informed about any household pets prior to enrollment and informed before any new pets join the household.
- Pets must be checked annually by a veterinarian. You must have current documentation on file from the veterinarian stating all pets are free of disease, are immunized against rabies and distemper, and are free of parasites and fleas.
- All pet materials — for example litter boxes, food dishes, pet toys, etc., must be out of children’s reach.
- Dogs and cats are allowed around children during child care hours, as long as they are in good health, cleared by the vet, friendly/even tempered and comfortable around children, and if your Service does not have a requirement against the pets being around children in family child care settings. Animals that are not recommended for family child care settings, for example turtles, iguanas, lizards or other reptiles, birds, or wild animals, including ferrets or parrots, should not be present, and are prohibited by certain services. These animals have a greater likelihood of carrying salmonella or other diseases.
- The environment should be free of pet odors, hair, or shedding.
If there are any firearms in your home, they must be stored unloaded and locked in a place inaccessible to the children. The ammunition must also be stored in a separate, locked location (NAFCC, 2013). For military family child care providers, it is important that your family child-care administrator is informed if you have firearms on your property.
In the Healthy Environments course, we provide much more information about appropriate administration of medication. However, one additional key aspect of environmental safety is the proper storage of medication. Medications should be stored in their original containers and in a locked cabinet or out of children’s reach.
Take an Eye-Level Look
The world for children looks much different than the view adults have when looking down. To see what hazards lie in wait for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, get on their level. Take a tour of your home on your knees to see what they see.
If you are prepared to ensure the safety of children in an indoor environment, you should be able to make the following statement:
When it comes to ensuring safe indoor environments, I always do the following:
- conduct a safety checklist daily before children arrive.
- lock away any items that could be dangerous to curious children (purses, medication, etc.).
- monitor my care environment for safety problems throughout the day and correct them immediately.
You should think about and prepare to respond to unforeseen hazards that can arise throughout the day, such as:
- A family member removed electric outlet covers to vacuum and did not replace them, or equipment is moved for cleaning and not properly reset
- You accidently leave disinfecting solution on an art table while helping a child in distress
- An ink pen falls unnoticed from a clipboard
- A child pops a wheel off a toy car
- A child drops a toy in the fall zone of the climber
- A high-chair strap buckle breaks
- A child learns to climb for the first time
- A child spills milk on the hard floor during snack time
These are just a few of the incidents that can occur. By being aware of safety issues and taking precautions, you can be ready to ensure these unforeseen events do not turn into accidents.
Use your knowledge of toy safety and child development to evaluate toys. Review the Choose or Lose Activity below. Do you think these toys would be safe in your family child care home? Why or why not? Think about the children currently enrolled in your program. Write your answers, then discuss them with a coach, trainer or family child care administrator. Then, compare your answers to the suggested responses.
If you did not review the safety checklist from Lesson One, review it now and use it in your program. You can also use the additional sample Indoor Checklist provided here. Walk around the room with a trainer, coach or family child care administrator. Discuss the safety features of the materials in your program. Learn what to do if you find something that is unsafe.
American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. (2011). Caring for Our Children: National health and safety performance standards; Guidelines for early care and education programs, 3rd ed. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; Washington, DC: American Public Health Association. Also available at http://nrckids.org
California Childcare Health Program (n.d.). Pets in the Child Care Setting. https://cchp.ucsf.edu/sites/cchp.ucsf.edu/files/petsen081803_adr.pdf
Cryer, D., Harms, T., & Riley, C. (2004). All About the ITERS-R. New York, NY: Teacher's College Press.
Cryer, T., Clifford, D., & Harms, R. M. (2006). Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale Revised Edition. New York, NY: Teacher's College Press. http://ers.fpg.unc.edu/
Cryer, D., Harms, T., & Riley, C. (2003). All about the ECERS-R. Kaplan Early Learning Company.
National Association for Family Childcare. (2013). Quality Standards for NAFCC Accreditation.
Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. (2010). Health and Safety in Family Child Care Home: Participant Guide.
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (n.d.). Kids and Babies Safety Resources. Washington, DC: Consumer Product Safety Commission. Available at https://www.cpsc.gov/safety-education/safety-guides/kids-and-babies#resources
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (n.d.). Think Toy Safety. Washington, DC: Consumer Product Safety Commission. Available at https://www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/281(1).pdf