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Ensuring Indoor and Outdoor Environments and Materials Are Safe

As the child and youth Program Manager, your primary responsibility is to provide oversight and accountability for the safety of children and youth in your program. The risks for children and youth increase when there are environmental hazards.

  • Describe what matters most when it comes to keeping environments safe for children, youth, and staff.
  • Identify management practices to ensure staff keep environments safe for children and youth.
  • Apply the content of this lesson to ensure environments are safe for children, youth, and staff.



Take a walk through any home improvement store, and you are likely to see the word “security” over and over again. You can find security lights, fences, doors, locks, windows, cameras, alarms, and even mailboxes. Why is security so important to us? We all have a need to feel safe in our environment. We prefer crossing streets at well-marked crosswalks and hiking in parks free of trash with clearly marked trails. We look for places that feel safe and look supportive.

Just like adults, children need environments that help them feel secure. Children depend on adults to meet their basic needs: food, water, shelter, clothing. They also depend on us to protect them from harm. Feeling safe opens the door for children to build relationships, become confident, and meet their potential (Maslow, 1943, 1945). We cannot expect children to learn if they do not feel safe.

You are a role model for staff members as they design safe environments. Your experience and expertise help staff members make the most of their space. It can be helpful for struggling staff to observe other spaces and talk to knowledgeable peers about their environments. You are a valuable resource as you point out features of the environment that keep children safe.

If there is a concern about safety in any environment, make sure the staff members know how to report the problem. A child’s life may depend on it. If you see any serious safety risks, you must take immediate action. Examples of serious safety risks might include broken playground equipment or downed electrical lines. It is important to speak up immediately and help staff members address these issues. Once the threat of immediate danger is eliminated, you can help develop a plan for preventing such problems in the future. Make sure you are familiar with the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission’s recall lists. You may need to lead efforts to identify and remove materials that have been recalled. You can find a link for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website in the References and Resources section of this lesson.

Active supervision is the most effective strategy for creating a safe environment and preventing injuries. Active supervision involves scanning, predicting, and assessing. This involves moving through indoor and outdoor spaces, scanning children and the environment for hazards, predicting potential hazards, and making necessary changes to the environment. Safe equipment and play space are important, but nothing replaces active supervision. It is important that staff members in your program practice active supervision.

The Importance of Working Efficiently

Learning to work efficiently will assist you in your safety efforts. Being a Program Manager is demanding. It requires the ability to balance the sometimes-competing priorities of management, families, children, and staff. One priority everyone can agree on is keeping children and youth safe. Your PUBLICprogram’s protocols and procedures are meant to be followed. They are your tools for ensuring the safety of children and youth. Are you using them consistently and efficiently?

Here are a few strategies for working more efficiently to ensure the safety of children and youth:

  • Utilize information from safety checklists to determine priorities and handle high-priority tasks first. Safety always comes first.
  • Reduce excessive interruptions. Log interruptions for a week and then come up with a plan for limiting them.
  • Schedule time to complete daily, weekly, and monthly checklists.
  • Overcome procrastination. Break large tasks into smaller ones and do the task you like least first.
  • Process paperwork efficiently. Attend first to what's most important.
  • Schedule time to respond to phone calls and emails.
  • Organize files, your desk, and your office space.
  • Delegate tasks and share safety checklist information with staff members to help ensure safe environments.

Environmental Risks

Risks are all around when caring for children and youth. In fact, accidents are the leading cause of injury and death for children in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Maintaining safe indoor and outdoor environments is critical to keeping children and youth safe. The way to do that is to make sure staff complete the required safety checklists as instructed and refer any safety issue to your attention immediately. As the Program Manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that the facility maintains appropriate standards for safe conditions and sanitation every day.

Hazardous Materials

Hazardous materials in the environment can be eliminated. If an item says, “keep out of the reach of children,” then it should not be accessible to them under any circumstances. For example, if on your daily walk-through of the program, you observe a teacher having a preschooler clean the tables using the bleach solution, then you need to intervene and provide corrective action. It is your responsibility to make sure all hazardous materials are stored in their designated place and used appropriately and that learning materials are developmentally appropriate. If you have materials or toys that have been recalled, remove them immediately from your program. If staff members are completing daily checklists and you are following up on concerns, the risk of harm from environmental hazards will be greatly reduced.

In addition to your staff keeping hazards out of reach, they also need to teach children and youth how to make safe choices for themselves. Children and youth need to learn that everyday items can be both helpful and harmful depending on how they are used. Scissors are a good example: they are a helpful tool, but they can be harmful if used inappropriately. The best way to keep children and youth safe is to model and teach safe practices.

You are an important role model for providing safe materials. You should help staff members choose materials. Review their purchasing lists or requests. Talk to staff members about the materials they request and how they can be used safely in child-development or school-age programs. If an item is appropriate for only a certain group of children (i.e., an item for children ages 10 or over in a school-age program for children ages 5-12), begin to discuss ways the staff members can introduce the toy, set guidelines for its use, and make sure it is used safely. Ask questions about the staff members’ goals for the item and how those goals could be reached with age-appropriate materials. Help staff members think in advance about issues. For example, if a school-age program has a toy for children ages 10 and up, help the staff member practice what they might say to younger children who want to play. Model ideas like, “We need to be safe. Let’s find a toy that we can play with together.”

You can also model using toys and material safely. If you see materials that seem unsafe, say something. Step in to help children if needed. It is your responsibility to help keep children safe. Always debrief with staff members after you have modeled or helped out in a program. Be sure to explain why you did what you did.

You can model how to check toys and materials for safety. Regularly move around your program and inspect toys and materials for damage. Report problems. Make sure staff members are supported when they report problems with materials.

Shared Spaces

Areas that are used by multiple classrooms of varying ages are particularly prone to safety risks. These areas include gross motor rooms and gyms, outside spaces, bathrooms, eating areas, and hallways. Toys and materials that are appropriate and safe for one age group can be dangerous for another. Restrooms can become hazardous as the day goes on if water and paper accumulate on the floor. Slippery conditions can lead to falls. Your staff needs to always inspect for environmental hazards such as these before children and youth enter a shared space and report any safety concerns immediately.


If you ask children their favorite part about attending your program, they might say playing outside. Playgrounds present the greatest exposure to environmental hazards just by their nature. Every year, there are over 200,000 injuries on playground equipment, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Playgrounds need to be safely maintained every day.

The space used for outdoor play must be well defined by a fence that is safe and in good repair. The gate must have some type of locking mechanism that prevents children and youth from leaving the play area. The outdoor play area should be free of hazardous debris. This is especially important if others use or have access to the play space when the program is not in operation. When the weather gets warmer it’s important for staff to check the temperature on play surfaces, so children don’t get burned.

According to the National Safety Council, 79 percent of playground injuries are from falls. Having adequate fall surfaces can help lessen the severity of injuries. Swings and climbing equipment should never be placed over grass, concrete, asphalt, blacktop, dirt or other hard surfaces.

Playground equipment can be dangerous if it's not adequately maintained. It's your responsibility to ensure that your playground equipment meets the Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines. Here are a few important hazards to have your staff look out for:

  • Swings, slides, and climbing equipment that are not stable or securely anchored
  • Equipment that is broken or has cracks or sharp edges
  • Openings that can become entrapments
  • S-hooks whose openings are greater than the thickness of a dime

It’s your responsibility to ensure that the staff is trained on how to use your PUBLICprogram’s playground safety checklist and what to do when safety concerns are identified. When you and your staff take a proactive approach to the maintenance of playgrounds, they remain fun places instead of becoming unsafe places.

Staff Safety

Safe environments are as important for your staff as they are for children and youth. Having the right equipment accessible can prevent injuries. Working with children and youth all day is a physically demanding job regardless of age; having ergonomically correct furniture, safe equipment, and functional materials assists in preventing workplace accidents.

Staff need to be just as vigilant about their safety as they are for the children and youth they serve. If a workplace accident does occur, staff need to notify you immediately so you can take the appropriate action.

Supervise & Support

Management Practices That Support Safe Environments

The chart below summarizes your key responsibilities when it comes to keeping environments safe for children and youth.

  1. Management Practice: Protocol Training

    I should always...

    Make certain that staff are trained on the protocols for keeping hazardous materials stored, environments safe, and appropriate safety checklists used ensure staff never...
    • Leave hazardous materials (cleaning agents and chemicals, medication, knives, sharp object, personal belongings, lighters, etc.) within reach of children and youth
    • Leave hazardous materials in entrance ways, hallways or other spaces where children and youth may have access during arrival and departure times
    • Keep items that could potentially be choking hazards within reach of younger children
    • Put toys in the environment without first making sure they are age appropriate
    • Keep broken furniture, equipment, or toys in the environment
    • Have loose electrical cords attached to crock pots, radios, televisions, CD players, etc. that children can pull down on them
    • Have open electrical sockets
    • Have shelving that is not securely attached
    • Fail to communicate environmental hazards immediately
  2. Management Practice: Monitor the Environment

    I should always...

    Monitor the environment by conducting frequent program observations to assess if staff are adhering to safety protocols, addressing any safety concerns immediately ensure that staff never...

    Expose children and youth to unsafe environments

  3. Management Practice: Schedule Clean-up and Maintenance Days

    I should always...

    Schedule quarterly clean-up and maintenance days, enlisting the support of staff, families and community stakeholders ensure staff never...

    Feel as though they are the only ones responsible for providing safe environments

  4. Management Practice: Provide Materials

    I should always...

    Provide materials that enable staff to do their jobs safely (ergonomic equipment, safe kitchen equipment, cleaning materials, etc.) ensure staff never...

    Are at risk for personal injury as a result of carrying out their job responsibilities

Watch this brief video to hear about ways to ensure environments are safe.

Safe Environments Matter

Ways to Ensure Environments Are Safe

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Management Safe Environments Course Guide.

To support the professional development of the direct care staff members or family child care providers you oversee, you can access their corresponding Course Guides:


Safety checklists are valuable sources of information for keeping environments safe for children, youth and staff. Using information from your most recent safety checklist, evaluate the safety of your program spaces. Record which spaces are compliant/noncompliant with the Risk Assessment Chart.


Using the information collected in the risk assessment activity, create a goal and action plan for the safety indicators that were not compliant. Your action plan should include the following:

  • A goal statement (for example, playground will be free of environmental hazards prior to each class using the space)
  • Action steps that you and your staff must accomplish to achieve this goal
  • Materials or resources needed to complete each action step
  • Staff members responsible for each action step
  • A timeline for each action step
  • Monitoring, training, and evaluation techniques

Once you have completed your action plan, ask for feedback and commitment from staff.


Environmental Hazards:
Everything in the physical environment that could potentially be a risk, such as facility structure, equipment, materials, toys, etc.
Ergonomic Furniture:
Furniture that fits the human body to improve both health and productivity
Fall Zones:
Areas requiring protective surfacing under and around all playground equipment that can absorb the shock during a fall
Hazardous Materials:
Substances or materials that have been determined to pose risks for health and safety


True or false? The majority of playground injuries are the result of falls.
True or false? Indoor and outdoor environments should be inspected monthly.
True or false? Staff members are responsible for their own safety.
References & Resources

Cryer, D., Harms, T., Riley, C. (2004). All About The ITERS-R.

Head Start Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center (ECLKC). Active Supervision.

Harms, T., Clifford, R.M., Cryer, D. (2014). Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Harms, T. Cryer, D., Clifford, R.M., & Yazejian, N. (2017). Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

National Association for Regulatory Administration.

Payne, A. (2011). Strong Licensing: The Foundation For A Quality Early Care And Education System: Research-based Preliminary Principles and Suggestions to Strengthen Requirements and Enforcement for Licensed Child Care. The National Association for Regulatory Administration.

U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.