- Describe potential hazards in the outdoor environment.
- Identify your role in keeping the outdoor environment safe for the children in your care.
- Apply the outdoor safety reminders and checklist in examples and your own environment.
Young children need and deserve the sun, fresh-air, and wide-open spaces that outdoor environments offer. Outdoor environments often provide different and more-complex materials and surfaces for practicing motor skills and numerous valuable sensory experiences—from the brush of wind, to the smell of freshly cut grass, to sound of crunchy fall leaves. However, outdoor environments can also provide special safety challenges. We will consider, as we did with indoor spaces in Lesson Three, how the facility and materials can impact children’s safety.
The National Program for Playground Safety recommends that child care programs consider four categories for ensuring playground safety. The SAFE categories are:
Active supervision is key to keeping young children safe. As discussed in Lesson Two, active supervision involves scanning, predicting, and assessing. You should move through the outdoor space, scanning children and the environment for hazards, predicting potential hazards, and making necessary changes to the environment. Safe equipment and play space is important, but nothing replaces active supervision.
For family child care providers who may use public or shared outdoor spaces, such as an apartment-complex playground, part of supervising the outdoor environment includes a safety check upon arrival. See the outdoor safety reminders below for more details, but remember to first survey the area to make sure that the play space is safe for children. In particular, you should make sure the area is free of animal feces, broken glass, paint chips, or trash.
As highlighted in the Outdoor Safety Reminders resource below, to support supervision, a fence or natural barrier is recommended to enclose the outdoor play space. This applies both to spaces the provider may use directly outside his or her home, as well as any public outdoor spaces (e.g., parks). A barrier naturally helps contain the children in your care, and barriers also help to keep children away from unsafe areas (e.g., pools, ponds, traffic). For family child care providers who often work alone, barriers are an incredibly helpful aspect of the environment that make supervision much easier. If you live in a home where fences are not permitted or visit parks that are not enclosed, extra precaution is necessary including more attentive supervision during outdoor play. You may need to establish special safety rules for your outdoor visits to help protect children (see Lesson Ten for more on establishing rules). For example, perhaps children remain in or near a wagon reading a set of books until you have had a chance to check the playground. Or perhaps children are limited to certain areas in the park and you review this rule with them before each trip.
However, it may also be that some outdoor spaces are simply too unsafe to use, regardless of the rules you establish or your vigilant supervision. If you live right next to a pond or a high-traffic area without an appropriate barrier that can separate the children from the hazard, then this space is simply too dangerous to ensure children’s safety. It is a good idea to talk with your family child care administrator or licensing agent about the outdoor spaces you want to use and assess together whether these are safe spaces.
Remember that playground equipment, trees, or bushes can sometimes block your line of sight. It is important that you find the most appropriate space in each outdoor environment to monitor all the children in your care. Make sure children under 3 are in your line of sight at all times. For very young children who are still learning about what items are unsafe for their mouths and how to safely navigate various equipment and surfaces, choking and falling are significant hazards in outside environments. It only takes a moment for a young child to place a piece of mulch in her or his mouth or to attempt walking down a slide—your active supervision is essential.
Young children are continually developing new skills, practicing emerging skills, and mastering skills. They are likely in different stages of skill development—depending on the ages of the children in your care, some may have mastered walking, and others may be practicing running, discovering climbing, or practicing shooting basketballs. Equipment and surfaces must safely support different levels of developing motor skills. Children should be provided with a wide variety of equipment and materials to use outdoors to support their development. The Learning Environments and Physical Development courses will provide more details about these components.
As highlighted in Lesson Three, the youngest children in your care, infants and toddlers, may lack the cognitive ability to predict consequences of their actions and may lack the motor skills to successfully navigate all aspects of the outdoor environment without significant support. For these reasons, your careful selection of outdoor spaces, materials, and supervision is critical.
It may be difficult to find a playground space that is age-appropriate for all the children in your care, especially if you are caring for infants through school-age children. You will need to think carefully about how you will support each child’s safety outdoors. For example:
- When you travel to the playground designed for children 4 years and older, can you bring a sturdy outdoor push toy or some age-appropriate balls for the younger children?
- When you travel to a playground designed for children ages 2 to 5, can you bring some sports or riding equipment (e.g., scooters with helmets) with you for older children as well as a blanket and appropriate manipulatives for infants?
Children will inevitably fall when they play. It is your job to reduce the frequency and severity of falls. Maintaining proper surface cushions surrounding equipment and proper spacing of equipment will help minimize injuries. So will using the correct height of equipment (for example, see Table 1 in the U.S. Consumer Product and Safety Commission’s handbook on Public Playground Safety, http://www.cpsc.gov/pagefiles/122149/325.pdf, for tips on the appropriate kind of climbing and playground equipment for children of different ages). Equipment should let children practice skills, but should not be too challenging. If you observe any concerns with fall surfacing, report them to the appropriate local authority, such as the apartment complex manager or the city parks and recreation department. Do not use climbing or swinging equipment until appropriate fall surfaces and zones are provided.
All materials and equipment must be in good working condition. There should be no evidence of damage, protrusions, or possible entrapments. Another hazard for young children can be excessively hot or cold play surfaces. Hazards from insects or animals (e.g., wasp nests or snake holes) should be considered. If you observe any concerns with equipment or play areas at public or shared outdoor spaces, report them to the appropriate authority.
It is also important to remember that if children play outside your home, the exterior of your home is a potential hazard. Care should be taken to make sure that the exterior of your house does not have siding that protrudes or chipping paint. Remember that this also means that any hazardous substances (e.g., fertilizers, weed killers, insect killer) should be stored away properly and should be properly washed off plants or structures to make sure children do not come into contact with toxic substances.
If you have outdoor climbing equipment at your home, review this safety checklist from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission regarding home playgrounds: http://www.cpsc.gov//PageFiles/122140/pg1.pdf
Remember also to think about protection from the sun. If you will play outside for more extended periods of time, particularly in hot climates, make sure that adequate access to shade is available.
There are many rules and regulations for equipment, spacing, and materials. Playground checklists often are for children 2 and older, but it is important to remember that even infants and young toddlers should have daily access for play outdoors. The document Playground Information to Use with the Environment Rating Scales contains safety guidelines for all children. It is available as a link in the References & Resources section of this lesson.
As discussed in Lesson Three on indoor environments and materials, it will be equally important that you:
- Check the condition of all materials offered to children outdoors. For example, there should be no broken parts or cracks on sports equipment. This includes fraying or unsecured soccer or basketball nets, which could pose a strangulation hazard.
- Check for recalled materials on the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website. Visit https://www.recalls.gov to see lists of recalled products.
- Check for potential choking hazards. This is true for toys or sports equipment, but also other elements in the outdoor environment that could fit in a choke tube (e.g., mulch or rocks). It may not be feasible to completely eliminate these hazards, but being aware of them will help you know how to safely support infants’ and toddlers’ engagement in outdoor spaces.
- Check for potentially hazardous plants. 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)
Remember to consider riding toys, such as bikes, scooters, skateboards, and skates. This equipment offers important motor experiences to children, but care should be taken regarding the appropriate age and developmental level needed to use these items. Helmets should be worn at all times.
Although water play is a wonderful sensory and cognitive experience for children, it must also be handled with caution. Water play may occur inside your home; for example, in a sensory bin, but many providers may wish to offer water play outside to help cool children on hot days.
It is important to remember that wading pools are not a safe or sanitary option; for this reason, sprinklers, water tables or sensory bins are preferable options. In addition, if there are children younger than 2 years of age in your care, water tables should be less than 6 inches wide or the water should be less than 1-inch deep. There should be no containers of water in which children could drown.
Take an Eye-Level Look
Have you looked at your outdoor spaces while on your knees? Doing so shows us how young children view the world and everything in it. Adults cannot always see everything from our bird's-eye view.
In many settings, your playground or outdoor space may be used by your family or neighbors at night. Or perhaps your program shares a community park. Even if your outdoor space is protected by a fence, it is possible that hazardous materials could find their way into this area. Before you take children outside, you must be vigilant about inspecting the outdoor space each day. Look for:
- Debris like glass, cigarette butts, litter, and building supplies
- Animal excrement and other foreign material
- Mulch that is spread too thin
- Standing water, ice, or snow
- Surfaces that are too hot or cold for children to touch safely
- Natural objects that might cause harm: sharp rocks, stumps, roots, branches
- Unsafe insects: anthills, beehives, or wasp nests
- Ditches, holes, wells, traps
- Exposed power lines or utility equipment
Remember to check the temperature of play surfaces. Metal or plastic slides, benches, and poured concrete surfaces can get very hot and very cold. Inspect surfaces for cracks caused by temperature changes or water damage.
The hope is that the outdoor spaces you use have been designed with safety in mind. In this activity, you will identify features of outdoor spaces that help keep children safe. Review the Play Spaces Activity below. As you watch the Outdoor Spaces Video from different programs, use the Play Spaces Activity below to help you record the features of the environment that keep children safe. When you are finished, discuss suggested responses with a coach, trainer, or family child care administrator. Compare your answers to the suggested responses.
Review the Safe Outdoor Environments Checklist and use it in your outdoor play areas. Document the date the safety issues were resolved. When complete, share with your trainer, coach or administrator.
|Emerging skills||Developmental skills young children are just beginning to develop; skills not mastered.|
|Entanglement hazards||Dangerous pieces of hardware, such as protruding bolts or open S-hooks on swings that could entangle children’s clothing—particularly drawstrings on the hoods of jackets or sweatshirts—and cause strangulation|
|Entrapment hazards||Openings in which children can fit their bodies but not their heads with the danger that they could get trapped or strangled|
|Fall zone||The area around and under climbing, sliding, or swinging equipment where protective surfacing is required to prevent injury from falls; the fall zone should be cleared of items that children may fall onto or run into|
|Motor development||Skills involving childrens’ increasing ability to use their bodies to interact with the environment; motor skills refer to a child’s ability to grasp, sit up, crawl, and walk|
|Non-Anchored Large Play Equipment||This type of play equipment is not fixed to the ground and is not permanently fixed in one location; examples include large plastic play houses or plastic climbers|
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 edition. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; Washington, DC: American Public Health Association. Also available at http://nrckids.org/CFOC
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.aap.org/
Blank, S. (2005) Hours that Count: Using After-School Programs to Help Prevent Risky Behaviors and Keep Kids Safe. Hamilton Fish Institute.
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/
National Association for Family Child Care (2017). Quality Standards for NAFCC Accreditation. Retrieved from https://www.nafcc.org/file/bfae1239-d67e-41d9-820d-96c059842fac
National Program for Playground Safety & University of Northern Iowa. (2019.) Retrieved from http://www.playgroundsafety.org
Playground Information to Use with the Environment Rating Scale http://ers.fpg.unc.edu/sites/ers.fpg.unc.edu/files/playground%20revised%2010-28-10.pdf
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (n.d.). Public playground safety checklist: Documents 325 and 327. Available at https://www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/325.pdf
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (n.d.). Think Toy Safety. Washington, DC: Consumer Product Safety Commission.