By Pam Gelman, M.A.
The preschool classroom door opens, and a dozen small bodies dash outside. They can't wait to play - they have been cooped up inside for a whole hour. While an outdoor space is a huge asset to a preschool program, it also raises questions for parents about play and safety.
Preschoolers need open spaces to run, jump and climb. This activity not only provides opportunities for children to play cooperatively with friends but also helps them settle down later for quiet activities. Finding an appropriate open space can be a challenge for preschool teachers and is often solved by designing an outdoor play yard.
Play structures and playground equipment are wonderful additions to outdoor spaces and a fun way for kids to build up their skills and coordination. The size, height and complexity of structures are designed for specific age groups. Parents of preschoolers need to be sure that play structures are appropriate for their children, especially if they are located on the same grounds as elementary schools.
No matter the size of the outdoor space, the school staff needs a system to organize equipment, toys and supplies used outside. Teachers need to know immediately where to find important materials such as first-aid kits or injury report forms. Keeping toys in cabinets will prevent weather-related damage. Low shelving and easy-to-open cabinets work well for teachers who want toys to be accessible to kids. But toys should not be left lying around the playground. Donna Thompson, executive director of the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), cautions, "Be sure that all toys are away from the use zone of the playground equipment so that children will not fall on them."
Preschool directors and teachers must follow federal guidelines and state licensing requirements to ensure playground safety. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) compiles safety guidelines for playground equipment. In addition, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has created standards for manufacturers of playground equipment, surfacing and fencing. If a preschool is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), playground safety is included in the criteria.
A licensed preschool is required to meet state safety requirements for its playground. But smaller family-run programs may not be licensed or follow current guidelines for play yard safety. Hiring a certified playground safety inspector (CPSI), certified through the National Playground Safety Institute of the National Recreation and Park Association, is the best way to know if a preschool's outdoor space meets safety guidelines.
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