Keeping children safe involves three essential components: education, supervision, and environment. We can teach children about safety such as reminding them to "walk (not run) inside the building," and providing close adult supervision. However, in preventing injury, creating a safer environment is most important. As much as possible, staff should identify and remove potential hazards and create an environment that allows children to move and play freely and safely.
It may be difficult to identify hazards in a fully furnished classroom or play area. Therefore, let's look at how to create a safer indoor environment by starting with the floor and walls, and working through furnishings and materials. Even if your classroom is filled, you can still use this system.
Floors and floor coverings should be clean and free of debris, including corners. Check carpets for pins, staples, or other items which can hide in the carpet pile. Use carpet tape or rubber backing to prevent rugs from curling or slipping. Check baseboards for loose material, protruding nails, or splinters.
All electrical outlets should be securely covered. Many licensing and accreditation standards state that "outlets should be covered when not in use." This can be accomplished by using small "push-in" covers; however, this may create a choking hazard if a child removes the cover. Outlets that will not be used should be covered with solid closed electrical plates (available at hardware stores). If an outlet is used regularly, you may install a hinged or screw-in outlet guard that also covers the electrical cord end.
Check windows for cleanliness, secure locks, and broken glass panes. Children like to look through and lean on windows, but they can fall through open windows or screens or break through glass panes. To prevent falls, install a safe "barrier" in front of windows. For example, you may secure plastic safety gate panels to the walls to form a "fence" in front of the window. To prevent children from opening windows, be sure to lock them or attach window guards that limit the distance a window may open. To prevent head entrapment, windows should not open more than 312 inches.
Remove all staples, thumb tacks, and putty. Check under posters and coverings for hidden staples or other hazards. Staples, push pins, and thumbtacks should never be used in children's classrooms or areas where children walk or play. Paper putty should not be used with young children because they may try to eat it.
To decorate bulletin boards, cover with colored paper and staple around the edges, then completely cover the line of staples with wide clear packaging tape. This will prevent staples from being pulled out. Then, attach wide strips of clear self-adhesive plastic or clear packaging tape to the board. Art work can then be securely taped to this strip, yet easily removed without damaging the board or decoration.
Check furniture for loose or protruding screws, nails, hinges, latches, or other hardware. Sharp edges and corners should be rounded. Sand surfaces that are rough or splintered and repair cracks. Check doors, legs, joints, and other parts for stability.
Bookshelves and chests should be securely bolted to walls so they cannot fall, even if a child tries to climb them. Freestanding furniture, such as shelves used for room dividers should be secured to prevent falling. Drawers should have "stops" so they cannot be pulled out too far and fall on a child.
Check blocks and other toys for rough or sharp edges, splinters, chipping paint, or other signs of wear. Repair broken toys if possible, or throw them away. Check toys for small or loose parts or parts that can be broken off. Young children can easily choke on small parts.
Wash all toys regularly (daily if children put them in their mouths) and disinfect with a bleach/water solution (see page 4 for solution mix). Many different germs can live on stuffed toys or cloth dolls, so these items should not be shared by children in classrooms. If a child has a favorite stuffed or cloth toy, it should be left in his or her crib and washed regularly, along with the blankets and sheets.
Check for objects that could fall and injure a child. For examples, pictures should either be laminated or framed in lightweight plastic frames rather than framed in heavy wood and glass frames. Radios, televisions, and electrical appliances should be anchored on a shelf or table, with the cord out of children's reach.
Check for hot pipes, heating units, or radiators that can burn a child. Work with your local fire marshall to find the best way to prevent access to hot items. For example, pipes can be wrapped with approved insulating tape. Fireplace screens may prevent access to radiators or heating units. Never place furniture or flammable objects near hot items! Be sure you have working smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, or other fire safety units. (Fire safety and burn prevention will be featured in a future issue of Healthy Childcare.)
Plants, mobiles, posters, and other colorful objects create an inviting classroom! However, check with your regional poison center before placing plants in your classroom. Be sure mobiles or other hanging objects do not have strings or cords that can strangle a child.
These are just a few suggestions for having a safer classroom for children. Look through your classroom carefully, make changes as needed, then ask two or three parents, teachers or someone from a local Safe Kids Coalition to come in and check for safety. It is a great way to make a classroom safer and to share safety information with other people. After all, we want our children to be safe not only while in our care, but at home and in their community, also.
Dr. Charlotte Hendricks is Health Education and Special Projects Coordinator with the Jefferson County Commission for Economic Opportunity (JCCEO), Birmingham, Alabama.