As children have more screen time, the amount of time spent outside has been declining. This can have a major negative impact on their wellbeing as outdoor play has numerous developmental and health benefits.
As such, childcare centres and kindergartens now try to ensure that children get some time for unstructured outdoor play.
That said, all reputable childcare centres ensure that there are sufficient provisions for outdoor safety at their place.
Why is playing outdoors important for children?
Outdoor play is vital for a child’s development and affects other areas in their life. Children who spend time playing in a natural environment have better attention and memory.
There are also studies that demonstrate that children who are exposed to outdoor ‘green spaces’ are less likely to develop behavioural issues such as ADHD.
Children learn social skills when playing together outdoors. Unstructured outdoor play allows children to develop some independence as well as their motor skills.
Children love to explore and outdoor play allows them to discover some nature and how their bodies move.
However, playing outdoors has its own risks and it is unsurprising that many parents worry about their children’s safety.
Risks of playing outdoors
While outdoor play has its benefits and many childcare centers and kindergartens schedule it into the timetable, it’s normal for parents to worry about keeping their children safe.
Unintentional injuries can occur, and there are some risks that all childcare centers should consider when it comes to outdoor play. Being aware of these risks will help in taking steps to reduce accidents from happening.
- Risk of physical injuries – outdoor play is fun but kids can fall, trip or get hurt unexpectedly. Younger children who are not very steady on their feet yet might not be able to keep their balance.
- Potential safety hazards such as:
- Animals whether strays or domestic
- Chemicals such as fertilizer or pesticides
- Open bodies of water. These can be wading pools as well as nearby lakes or ponds
- Trees or other things that look attractive to climb
- Construction hazards if there is construction happening nearby.
- Roadways – If the play area is located near the road or even near the kindergarten or child care center driveway, there is risk of children encountering a vehicle.
- Risk from environmental elements – Playing outside means that children will be exposed to the elements. There are risks for bug bites, sunburns, allergies and even dehydration.
- Stranger danger – While almost all childcare centers and kindergartens have security systems and safety precautions in place, it is possible for children to encounter a stranger when they are playing outdoors.
Knowing the risks enables us to properly plan and minimize the potential of accidents happening. Here are some steps that can be taken to create a safe outdoor play space in childcare centers.
Creating a safe space to play
Children are natural explorers and may get into scrapes as they play outdoors. Here are some tips on how to keep them safe while allowing them to be independent and have fun.
Talk to the children about safety
The first thing you should do is to talk to the children about the risks and dangers that may face when they are playing outdoors. Talk to them about stranger danger, dangers associated with roadways, as well as what to do if accidents happen.
Establish an injury plan
As you talk to children about safety, it is also important to talk to kids about what to do if someone does get hurt. Remind them that they need to inform the teacher straight away. Keep a first aid kit nearby and treat the injury as needed if it is not serious.
Teachers should also have a phone nearby for emergencies.
Appropriate medication or a response plan for allergies should also be in place. Children can be allergic to pollen, step on an ant nest or get stung by a bee when playing outdoors.
Set up signs
Signs around the play area can help to alert drivers that there are children playing nearby.
Install a good fence
A good fence or barrier will help keep the kids within the play area. This is especially useful if there are attractive ‘hazards’ such as pools, or big trees that children may want to climb.
Install security cameras
Security cameras allow you to review an accident and take the necessary action. Young children might not be able to explain how they fell or where they got a cut. Security cameras will give you a chance to see what happened.
Have a ‘buddy’ system
Pair the kids up so that they are never alone when playing outdoors.
One of the key aspects of outdoor safety in childcare centers is playground safety. It can be quite challenging to cater to toddlers, preschoolers and school going children as they all have different developmental abilities.
As such you might want to consider separating different areas of the playground for children of different ages to ensure that it is safe for all the kids. Here are some steps that will help promote playground safety:
- Inspect playground equipment and surfaces regularly. Items that are broken or worn out should be repaired or replaced as soon as possible. Broken equipment should be removed.
- Avoid burns from metal playground equipment by placing them in the shade.
- Equipment that moves, such as swings, should be located outside the play area to avoid kids getting knocked over by friends who are on the swing. You can also talk to children about the importance of staying away from the front and back area of the swing.
- Some shade in the play area will help prevent sunburn. Trees, or an awning are simple, yet effective ways to do so.
- Anchor permanent outdoor equipment to the ground
- Ensure that all equipment is a minimum of 6 feet from fences, trees, buildings and other play equipment to avoid children running into things.
- Do not attach ropes or other things to play equipment.
- Use plastic safety caps to cover protruding bolts and screws.
A soft surface underneath play equipment can help reduce the risk of injuries when children fall. Rubber mulch, wood chips, sand and pea gravel are all great materials that are soft enough to help absorb the shock of a fall.
For best results, surface materials for equipment less than 4 feet high should be a minimum of 6 inches while 9 inches deep is recommended for equipment of 4 to 8 feet high. Surface materials should also have 6 feet extended beyond all the edges of the equipment that are stationary.
As for swings, it is recommended that surfacing is two times the height of the suspension bar in the front and back areas. It is also important to remember that surfacing needs to be refilled from time to time in order to maintain the depth.
Trampolines can help children with their coordination and balance. However, there is a risk of getting hurt if safety guidelines are not followed. If your childcare centre has a trampoline for children, here are some steps to take to ensure they are safe while having fun trampolining.
- Children should be supervised at all times when on the trampoline
- Check that the mat and net is in good condition. Also check that all springs are intact and securely attached. The leg braces should be locked and the trampoline frame should not be bent.
- Safety padding on the frame and springs can help in keeping children safe if they fall or have a misstep.
- Make sure that the area around the trampoline is free from hazards. There should not be fences, furniture or toys around. The area overhead should also be checked to ensure that there are not trees or wires in the way.
- Remember that trampolines may not be suitable for children who are too young.
- For greater stability and lower fall height, sink the trampoline into the ground
- No eating or drinking when on the trampoline to avoid choking
- Only one child on the trampoline at any one time
- Teach children to jump in the center and how to get on and off the trampoline safely.
In addition to making sure that the outdoor play area is safe, here’s what childcare centers can do to for the kids to ensure outdoor safety:
- Check the weather before going out. Change to indoor play or other activities if it is extremely hot or raining.
- Ensure that children are appropriately dressed for playing outdoors. Clothes should also be weather appropriate. You don’t want to have kids tripping over long dresses or wearing heavy jackets when it is hot weather.
- Use proper equipment. If you are planning special games, make sure that kids have helmets, elbow pads and knee pads to keep them safe. All equipment that you use should be in good condition.
- Remind the kids to drink water so that they stay hydrated.
- If needed, sunscreen and insect repellent should be applied to minimize risk of sunburn and insect bites.
Daily outdoor safety checklist
To ensure that the outdoor play area is free from hazards, here’s a daily outdoor safety checklist that you can use. Fix or remove hazards that are found.
If you can’t fix it immediately, ensure that you cordone the area or make plans to do so.
- Play equipment is free of debri and in good condition
- The area is clean and there is no trash around
- If it is a shared area, make sure that there are no toys, ropes, cans, or school supplies left by other groups
- Look out for broken glass
- Animals may get into the area at night, so check for animal waste.
- Empty standing water from containers. Wading pools, or pails that are not in use should be emptied and put away.
- If there are storage areas such as sheds or garages that are nearby, make sure that they are locked so that children are unable to get their hand on dangerous materials
- If you have a sandbox or sand play area, cover it when it is not in use
Monthly outdoor safety checklist
You will also need to check the following at least once a month:
- Check that fences are in good condition and make the necessary repairs if needed.
- Check that play equipment is a minimum of 6 feet away from buildings, fencing, vehicles, trees, rocks as well as other play equipment. This will give children space to move around freely and minimize injuries that occur due to overcrowding.
- Check that the S hooks on swings are completely closed
- Check for protruding bolts or screws on play equipment. You can secure them with plastic caps or wrap them up in foam so that they do not cause injuries.
- Mow the lawn if grass is overgrown.
Although outdoor play has many benefits, steps to ensure outdoor safety is needed. This is especially true in childcare centers that allocate time for kids to have fun outdoors. If you are looking for a childcare center or kindergarten that has high outdoor (and indoor!) safety standards in Malaysia, check out Cherie Hearts International Preschool & Kindergarten.