It is the responsibility of adults who care for and teach young children to ensure that outdoor and indoor play areas and equipment are safe and free from danger. The fact that children are attempting new physical challenges makes it impossible to eliminate all risks, but much can be done to the environment itself to reduce the number of injuries. Here are some tips to safer play this summer:
- In the Heat: Games and activities played in the heat should be shortened and more frequent water/hydration breaks should be instituted. On both sunny and cloudy days use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or greater that protects against UVB and UVA rays.
- Movement: Remove hoods or drawstrings than can get caught on equipment and have all children run in the same direction so they don’t run into each other. Most young children are not yet skilled in dodging objects while running.
- Safe Stops: Teachers should not ask children to run to a wall or fence or any other immovable object. Most young children cannot yet judge distances or stop quickly. Some children may be likely to run full speed into the wall. Place a tumbling mat or playmat several feet in front of any wall or other immovable object. This gives children a great place to fall, roll or tumble as they stop.
- Jumping: Children should not jump from distances that are more than half their height. Teachers may instruct, "You can jump off everything that is lower than 4 feet tall," as they let the children help find and measure structures and places that are safe and appropriate jumping places. Teach children how to land softly on two feet when jumping by bending their knees. Show children how to break falls by putting their arms in front of their bodies.
- Equipment: The indoor and outdoor play equipment should suit the children’s ages and developmental abilities. Children will not usually climb up a structure or piece of equipment if they think they cannot not get down on their own initiative. If they do, teachers may choose not “rescue” children by lifting them off of the piece of equipment or climbing structure, as rescuing may encourage the behavior. Ask them to go back down the way they came up or direct them to a safe place to descend. Of course, an adult would remain present to coach the child patiently down by helping the child anticipate the surface below.
- Climbing: Did you know that when you lift young children up to a piece of equipment (i.e. monkey bars, etc.) they often do not yet have the cognitive connections to internalize that they are not moving across the monkey bars with their own body and upper arm strength? Many unfortunate “playground accidents” happen when children think they can accomplish a movement task on their own. Limit the number of children using a climbing structure at the same time. For example, learning to wait on the ground before ascending the ladder to a slide gives the child in front of them time to begin sliding or to come back down the ladder. It also eliminates opportunities for horseplay at the top of the slide.
- Playground Regulations: The playground should have safety-tested mats or loose-fill materials (shredded rubber, sand, wood chips, or bark) maintained to a depth of 12 inches. This type of surface absorbs the impact of a jump or fall. The protective surface should be installed at least 6 feet in all directions from the equipment. Swings require 16 feet of clear area in front and behind with 6 feet free on each side. Equipment should be carefully maintained. Open “s” hooks or protruding bolt ends can be hazardous. Make sure children cannot reach any moving parts that might pinch or trap any body part. All indoor climbing structures should be surrounded by a mat at least 2 inches thick and 3 feet wide. Place these structures at least 4 feet away from walls, doors and other solid structures. Teach children how to climb and maneuver on large structures.
- Riding: Children should wear trike helmets when riding wheel toys and trikes. When purchasing a helmet, look for a label or sticker that says the helmet meets the CPSC safety standard.
Watch the children at all times during physical activities. Adults should position themselves near the most populated pieces of equipment. Teach young children the rules of safety and watch children for safe and appropriate behavior. Notice changes in a child’s activity level that might indicate a health issue.
Use your own good judgment in anticipating and preventing anything that might be unsafe for the children. Balance fun and safety in children’s play!