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Ensuring Indoor and Outdoor Environments are Safe

High-quality environments keep children safe from injury. This lesson focuses on ways your work with the staff ensures that indoor and outdoor environments are safe for children.

  • Teach staff members how to detect and respond to safety concerns in indoor and outdoor environments.
  • Model and provide resources related to daily safety checks of indoor and outdoor environments.
  • Observe and provide feedback on the safety of indoor and outdoor environments.


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 well-lit parking lots. We like parks with clearly marked trails. We look for places that allow us to recognize and respond to any danger.

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.


The staff members you work with enter your programs with a range of experiences and education that influence how they design environments for young children. As a coach, it is your role to make sure all staff members understand your program’s policies, procedures, and practices related to safe environments. Teach staff members how to use the specific forms and environmental checklists required by your program. Teach them who to contact and what steps to take if they detect a problem in indoor or outdoor environments. Teach staff members what to expect from you and other administrators who perform safety inspections.

It’s also important to make sure staff members understand why safety is our first priority. The Virtual Lab School offers a variety of learning experiences to help all direct-care staff members think about and reflect on safety. The Explore section of each lesson contains reflection activities. Encourage staff members to read these activities, complete them, and share their responses with you. Although there are not usually right and wrong answers, it can be very useful to review staff members’ responses. This can give you an insight into their thinking and help you evaluate how well they understand the content. If a staff member misunderstands the content or does not respond in a way that is consistent with your program’s philosophy, it is important to talk with the staff member about the responses. You can ask reflective questions and help guide the staff member toward more appropriate responses.


You are a role model for staff members as they design safe environments. Your experience, expertise, and professional connections help staff members make the most of their space. If a staff member is struggling with providing safe indoor and outdoor environments, it can be helpful to make arrangements for them 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. Furthermore, you model effective communication strategies by providing a consistent message to staff members who work different shifts in the same classroom.

You may also walk around with new staff members as they complete daily safety inspections. Point out important safety features or risks. Model how to complete required paperwork and how to follow through with problems. If there is a concern about safety in any environment, make sure the staff members know how to report the problem. If you see any serious safety risks, you must take immediate action. A child’s life may depend on it. 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 and its recall lists. You may need to lead efforts to identify and exclude 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 key to keeping children safe. Active supervision involves scanning, predicting, and assessing. This involves moving through indoor or outdoor spaces, 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. It is important that staff members in your program practice active supervision.


It is your responsibility to ensure that staff members learn to inspect indoor and outdoor environments for safety. You must make sure all spaces are safe for children. Your program may have tools you should use to evaluate the safety of indoor and outdoor environments. Several environmental rating scales also are commercially available (ITERS-R, ECERS-R, SACERS). You can also use the National Association for the Education of Young Children environment standards. These tools provide valuable information to help focus a staff member’s professional development around safety. You can also use the ones provided in the Apply section of this lesson.

The most important thing you can do is observe staff members and talk with them about safe environments. It is important for you to know each staff member’s individual strengths and challenges. Remember, you may also need to support consistency across staff members who work in the same classroom on different shifts.

In this lesson, you will follow a case example that focuses on how a coach could help staff members ensure that environments are safe for children. Although the case example comes from a toddler classroom, the safety concerns are relevant to all age groups. Principles of designing a safe environment for toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children are similar. We must provide environments that encourage safe behaviors like walking instead of running, or cleaning up after oneself. This case example will provide examples of ways you can plan, observe, and provide feedback to staff members.

Case Example 1

What safety concerns do you see in this environment?

Case Example Step 1: Action Plan

As a coach , you can help staff members develop action plans. Action plans are tools that help staff identify changes they want to make. They help identify resources, and they help set a timeline for change. Any potential safety risks you see may become action plan targets. Think about the toddler classroom you saw in the video. Here is a sample action plan item that “Joanne” completed for her toddler classroom.

Goal Action Steps Materials or Resources Needed Person Responsible Timeline
To make the classroom more safe for toddlers by increasing the teaching team’s appropriate supervision. Look at sample classroom designs that have good supervision. Books & photos Michael Next week (18 Oct)
Make sure the classroom is organized into zones that adults can monitor easily. Time to reorganize the classroom when children aren’t present; help from Michael Joanne, Marley, Michael Team meeting time on Oct 25
Develop a role-by-responsibility matrix. Make sure every zone of the room is covered and every adult has a job to do. Team meeting/planning time Joanne & Marley Oct 25
Use the role-by-responsibility matrix for at least a week and then meet to make changes. None Joanne & Marley Oct 25-31
Take data to figure out hot spots in the room where problems are still happening. Share with team. Help with data sheets and collecting information Michael First week of Nov
Meet to brainstorm solutions for hot spots. None Joanne, Marley, Michael First week of Nov

Case Example Step 2: Providing Feedback

Feedback is the heart of the coaching process. When you provide feedback, you are supporting and motivating staff members in their work. You are sharing information about what you have observed, and you are providing objective viewpoints upon which they can reflect. It is important to ask reflective questions and to help empower staff members to solve their problems. Remember that observing the environment for safety can also align to curriculum and learning-environment requirements.

Joanne asked her coach, Michael, to keep track of how often children were running unsafely in the classroom. Here is their conversation.

Joanne: Geez, they were wound up today! I am so tired.

Michael: Toddlers are definitely active. I know you said the transition after breakfast has been hard for your little ones. Like we talked about, I kept an eye on their running today. I heard you remind the kids to use “walking feet” five times this morning. What about that transition is making it difficult and unsafe?

Joanne: Well, we’re all busy getting the tables cleaned and helping kids use the potty. They love to dance on the carpet after breakfast, but they just get too excited. They run into each other, run in circles, and get hurt. We can’t be everywhere at once.

Michael: You’re right. It does seem like there’s a lot the adults need to do first thing in the morning. How do you think the kids feel about that?

Joanne: They definitely want our attention first thing in the morning. Everybody’s got a story to tell, and everyone wants to dance with me.

Michael: It also seems like they go from a really structured place at breakfast (where they have all your attention) to a more open place on the carpet (where there are no grown-ups). I think we should probably sit down with Marley and think about ways to help the kids get the attention and routine they need right after breakfast. Do you think that might help eliminate some of the safety risks?

Case Example Step 3: Providing Resources to Promote Safety

All of us need the right tools to do our jobs. Use the information you have gathered to connect staff members with resources they need. You might model a skill, arrange for a staff member to observe in another classroom or program, bring in materials from a lending library, or brainstorm new ways to use materials. You might also help connect them to resources about teaming or working with other staff members to solve problems. The University of Minnesota REACH has a variety of resources for developing your coaching skills and helping support adult learners. For example, see

Here are the resources Joanne and her coach identified to meet her goals.

Michael, Joanne, and Marley sat down together to talk about roles and responsibilities for the breakfast routine. They list everything that needs to be done after breakfast: wiping tables, clearing the food cart, helping with restroom, helping with brushing teeth, leading a song on the carpet. They decided that it was too difficult to keep the children engaged on the carpet, so they decided to rearrange the schedule. After breakfast, children could go to free choice play areas. The team also developed a responsibility chart. Marley would supervise the restroom and teeth brushing. Joanne would clear the food and tables and talk to the children about their play ideas. As soon as the tables were clean, Joanne would join children’s play.

Additional Examples of Environments

As a coach, you will likely see a range of environments across a range of age groups. Watch the following videos to see examples of environments with varying levels of safety. Because the case example followed an infant and toddler setting, these additional examples will represent preschool and school-age settings. Each video ends with a summary of how you might follow-up with the staff members.

Preschool Settings

Watch these examples of preschool environments. As you watch, think about the competencies you see related to safe environments for preschool children. Then read the table at the end of this section to learn more.

Safe Environments: Preschool

This video shows a range of environments for preschool

Preschool Scenarios



What you observed:

  • In busy classroom walkway
  • Girls walk through block area
  • Door to the outside causes traffic
  • No injuries or collisions occurred
  • Plenty of room for building
  • Variety of materials


What you might ask:

  • “I noticed there was a lot of activity in the block area today. How do you feel about the way children use the space?”
  • “You have created a nice open space for block play, and I can tell that is a real interest for the kids in your space. I noticed Marcus seemed to get frustrated today. Why do you think that is?”

You Do

What you might do:

  • Spend time discussing classroom arrangement with the teacher, sketching alternative arrangements, and trying them out.
  • Offer the teacher tools and time to observe her interest areas and how children use them.


What you observed:

  • Boundaries on all sides
  • Children building structures large enough that several children (and adults) can sit on them
  • Adult nearby encouraging and supervising safe play


What you might ask:

  • “The children were so engaged building the bus today in the block area. How does this compare to other ways you have arranged your block area?”
  • “What have you noticed about how children play in the block area? Have you had any safety challenges?”

You Do

What you might do:

  • Ask her to invite other staff members to observe how the space is arranged and how children use the space.
  • Help her track children’s use of each interest area; use the information to make sure all areas are safe and appropriate.

School-Age Settings

Watch these examples of school-age environments. As you watch, think about the competencies you see related to safe environments for school-age children.

Safe Environments: School-Age

This video shows a range of environments for school-age children

School-Age Scenarios



What you observed:

  • Variety of materials
  • Materials are in good condition
  • Interest areas are lined up against the wall; open space in the middle of the room


What you might ask:

  • “How do school-age children use this space? Have you noticed any patterns or problems?”
  • “Can I come back and watch when children are using this space? If I’m a fly on the wall, describe what I might see.” 

You Do

What you might do:

  • Observe when children are in the space. Take notes to share with the staff members.
  • Spend time discussing the room arrangement with staff members, sketching alternative arrangements, and trying them out.
  • Help staff find materials to use as boundaries.


What you observed:

  • Wide variety of materials
  • Program areas clearly defined
  • Boundaries and furniture arranged to prevent running and roughhousing
  • Comfortable spaces, spaces for active games, spaces for quiet work, spaces for crafts, etc.


What you might ask:

  • “What are children’s favorite areas in the space? How can you tell?”
  • “Are there any spaces that make you nervous about safety? How do you handle that?”

You Do

What you might do:

  • Observe how children use the spaces.
  • Help organize staffing patterns so all areas of the large room are supervised at all times.
  • Monitor staff members’ safety inspections to make sure all areas meet standards.

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 Training & Curriculum Specialist 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:


There will likely be times when you see unsafe situations in child-development or school-age programs. It is important to think about how you will respond to these situations. As you watch the video below, think about how you would guide the staff member toward a safe resolution of the situation. Read the Coaching About Environments Activity, write your responses, and share your ideas with a coworker.

Spaces for Privacy

As you watch this video think about possible safety risks in classroom environments


Use these forms (or ones provided by your workplace) to monitor the safety of environments. Walk around classrooms or the playground. Use the safety checklist provided by your program or one of those provided here. Talk about what you see with the appropriate staff members or managers.


It is outdoor play time for Feliz’s class in Texas. It has been weeks since the last rain, but somehow the children found a puddle to jump in. Feliz is watching and laughing with the children. When you move closer, you notice an unpleasant sewage smell. What do you say to Feliz?
Alisha is observing Trevor, a staff member in the school-age program. She notices a downed electrical wire in the only space where children are supposed to play outside. What should she do first?
Carmello is an assistant teacher in the infant classroom. He likes to roughhouse with the mobile infants. The classroom’s coach, Emily, is concerned that play is getting too rough and the surfaces are too hard for such play. What should Emily do?
References & Resources

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

Council on Accreditation (COA; 2008). After School Program Standards. New York, NY: Council on Accreditation.

Consumer Products Safety Commission Retrieved from  

Harms, T., Clifford, R. M., & Cryer, D. (2005). Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, revised ed. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

University of Minnesota REACH. (2020).

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (n.d.). Think Toy Safety. Washington, DC: Consumer Product Safety Commission.