Outdoor playtime should be relaxing for children and provide opportunities to have fun, expend energy, develop motor skills, and more. Other benefits to daily outdoor physical activity include promoting fitness, increasing socialization skills, and preventing unhealthy weight gain.
The outdoor environment is an extension of the indoor learning environment. Any activities normally done indoors can be taken outdoors to add another dimension. For example, painting and art activities or reading to the children become new and exciting in the outdoor environment.
It is the childcare programs responsibility to provide appropriate spaces, equipment, and activities, and to assure childrens safety. Safety during outdoor play requires advanced planning and preparation.
Early childhood program directors should consider national standards and guidelines for playground safety when designing a new playground or enhancing an existing area:
- The American Society for Testing and Materials sets industry standards for playground equipment, including home playground equipment (ASTM Standard F 1148).
- The recently revised Consumer Product Safety Commission Handbook for Public Playground Safety provides guidelines for public playgrounds.
These recommendations should be followed along with any state playground requirements. Adherence to these recommendations not only assures a safer environment for children, but may also offer legal protection if a child is injured.
Consider how children will go to and from the playground. Can children access the playground without crossing a street or parking lot? Is there a sidewalk or other safe path?
The playground should be enclosed with fencing or another barrier. Gates should have secure latches, preferably at adult levels rather than within childrens reach. Playgrounds should be sun safe with large areas of dense shade from leafy trees, shadows of buildings, roofed structures, or portable shade canopies.
Trained staff should conduct a thorough inspection of all equipment and grounds at least monthly. Necessary repairs should be completed immediately; children should not have access to unsafe areas or equipment.
Many states have specific requirements about playground equipment. Check with your licensing department, childcare health consultant, resource and referral agency, or public health department regarding playground standards.
Caregivers and teachers are responsible for daily checks and activities to assure childrens safety. Here are examples of safety checks:
- Inspect the playground each day before children are allowed to enter. If appropriate and safe, consider allowing one or two children to help inspect the area. The children can point to trash, but only the adult should pick it up. Gloves and a sturdy trash bag are essential.
- Gates should be securely latched.
- Loose-fill resilient surface materials under equipment (i.e., sand, mulch, or pea gravel) should be evenly distributed to maintain the appropriate depth for safety.
- Look for insect nests such as wasp nests or fire ant beds. Be aware that yellow-jackets (wasps) build nests in the ground.
- Remove potentially toxic plants such as mushrooms or poison ivy.
Children should wear appropriate clothing for weather. Removable jackets or clothing layers are best for cool days. Lightweight clothing that covers more skin provides sun protection. Clothing should allow movement without risk.
Closed, well-fitted shoes facilitate running, jumping, and climbing. Do not allow necklaces, hoop earrings, or clothing with draw strings that could catch on equipment.
Have separate play areas or schedule play time according to childrens ages and abilities. Know childrens individual abilities, and be aware of activities they are attempting. Prevent access to equipment that is inappropriate for childrens age or ability.
A first aid kit must be available to childcare providers during outdoor play, but inaccessible to children.
Supervise at All Times
Outdoor play is not break time for the adults but is a supervised play time for children. It is estimated that more than 40 percent of playground injuries are related to inadequate adult supervision. Supervision requires active involvement with children.
- Maintain an appropriate staff:child ratio at all times. Higher-risk activities such as water play require additional adult supervision.
- Supervise children carefully going to and from the playground, as well as while on the playground.
- Continually move throughout the play area, checking blind spots such as inside crawl-through equipment or behind trees.
- Make frequent eye contact with each child.
- Know how many children you take to the playground, and count heads frequently.
- Be aware of weather conditions. Check the daily UV and heat indexes and take appropriate sun-safe action. If you hear thunder, immediately take all children indoors, even if it appears to be a clear day.
Provide Props for Playground Activities
- Provide safe, washable, and age-appropriate props for outdoor activities. Beach towels, large soft balls, or blocks encourage individual or small group play. Playground parachutes can be fun for larger groups of children.
- Buckets, cups, spoons, shovels are fun during sand play.
- Wheeled toys should have wide bases and secure wheels. Provide smooth riding surfaces, and require that children wear helmets.
Early care and education professionals should interact with children while encouraging child-directed play. Provide appropriate props and give children specific ideas of tasks. Walk around the playground and make positive comments on childrens play.
If you observe a child who is not involved, ask if he or she wants to slide, walk on the balance beam, or color. Encourage all children to have fun.
Anarella Cellitti, PhD, Associate Professor
Early Childhood Education, University of Arkansas
Consumer Product Safety Commission, www.cpsc.gov/CPSCPUB/PUBS/playpubs.html
National Program for Playground Safety, University of Northern Iowa, Human Performance Center 103, Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0618; 800-554-PLAY; www.uni.edu/playground