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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, 1987). 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 PUBLICcoach , 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 otherPUBLIC 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 may not always be 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.

Environmental Risks

Risks are all around when caring for children and youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022), accidents are the leading cause of injury and death for children in the United States. 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.  It is your responsibility to work with the manager to ensure that the facility maintains appropriate standards for safe conditions and sanitation every day.

Shared Spaces

Areas that are used by multiple classrooms of varying ages are particularly prone to safety risks. These areas include large-muscle rooms, 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.  Staff need 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. Here are a few important hazards to look out for with staff and managers:

  • 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 program's playground safety checklist and what to do when safety concerns are identified. When you and 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 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 members need to notify you and management immediately so managers can take the appropriate action.


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 are 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 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. After you watch the video, consider the sample ways a coach may follow-up with the team.

Case Example 1

What safety concerns do you see in this environment?

Providing Feedback to Staff Members on Safe Environments

Feedback is the heart of the coaching process, and a key way you keep children and youth safe. 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 specific strategies for ensuring safety. Remember that observing the environment for safety can also align to curriculum and learning-environment requirements. Consider the following conversation that a coach may have had with the lead teacher featured in the Case Study video:

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

Coach: 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?

Teacher: 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.

Coach: 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?

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

Coach: 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 the team 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?

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. 

Consider the ways the coach and toddler team from the case study identified resources and next steps:

The coach and the toddler team 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.

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. In Coaching About Environments, watch the video within the activity, and consider how you would guide the staff member toward a safe resolution of the situation.


Walk around your classroom or playground. Use the safety checklist provided by your program or one of those provided here. Talk about what you see with appropriate staff members or managers.

Consider using the Safe Environments Best Practices Checklist to observe and document competencies that specifically address safe practices. As you observe and reflect on a staff member’s practice, indicate how often the staff member performs the following actions using the scale provided. Share your observations with staff and use the information learned from the checklist to identify goals and focus your coaching interactions.


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 an electrical wire down 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 (2020). CFOC Standards Online Database. Aurora, CO; National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2022.

Council on Accreditation (2021). Standards for Child and Youth Development Programs.

Consumer Products Safety Commission.

 Harms, T., Cryer, D., & Clifford, R. M. (2019). Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale, (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

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

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

Harms, T., Jacobs, E. V., & White, D. R. (2013). School-Age Care Environment Rating Scale). New York: Teachers College Press.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). Delhi, India: Pearson Education.

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