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Playing It Safe: Preschool Playground Guidelines

Preschoolers and playgrounds just go together - here's how to make sure your school's yard is hazard-free.

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.

Why Play Yards Are Important

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.

Organization

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."

Safety Is the Bottom Line

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.

Key Factors to Consider

When parents are checking out a preschool's playground, they should note the following:

Location: If the play yard is not accessible directly from the classroom, parents need to walk to the outdoor space and note any potential hazards, such as cracks in or prickly plants near the walkway. Also, there should not be any open bodies of water or access to the street. The yard needs to have boundaries or fencing on all sides.

Play structures: Stationary play structures should have an empty zone extending at least six feet. The height of these structures should also be no higher than six feet. Swings should be two to three feet apart to prevent collisions, and the swing zone should be twice the height of the swing beam. Foundations need to be securely anchored, without any exposed large or sharp pieces of hardware. "Parents should look to see that the equipment is well maintained with no loose nuts and bolts," suggests Thompson.

Surface materials: To prevent serious injuries from falls , there needs to be a soft surface under playground equipment and extending six feet in all directions. The depth of the surfacing depends on the material and testing, but "we still feel strongly that the depth be 12 inches since people are not careful about keeping the depth at an evenly raked height," says Thompson. Loose-fill materials that work well are sand, loose wood products or loose rubber pieces. Pea gravel is a common surface material, although "it is probably best not to have for preschool children since they might consider eating the gravel," says Thompson.

Another safe option is a unitary surface such as rubber tiles or poured-in-place rubber. Inappropriate surface materials are asphalt, concrete, dirt, grass and chemically treated wood mulch.

Supervision: There needs to be as much supervision of kids outside in the play yard as inside the classroom. Also, there should be a means of communication available (phone or walkie-talkie) in case of an emergency. Teachers need to explain the play yard rules and be attentive to children using the equipment in unanticipated, creative ways. "The adults at the preschool should be moving while they are supervising children on the equipment, not standing and talking together," says Thompson.

Landscaping: Planting flowers or a vegetable patch adds color and softness to the playground setting. But thought must be given to the plants selected. Are they sharp to the touch? Do they attract bees? Are they poisonous if ingested? Low-maintenance gardens work well in busy preschools.

Healthy Risk Taking

Teachers and parents want kids to have fun in playgrounds. They want kids to try out new skills, be challenged and take healthy risks. It's the grown-ups' job to make sure there are age-appropriate risks set up for children and not injury-causing hazards.

A Parent's Checklist for Preschool Playground Safety

  • Is the play structure designed for preschoolers?
  • How old is the play structure? Has it been updated to meet current safety standards?
  • Has the playground been inspected by a CPSI?
  • Are playground safety rules discussed with the children?
  • What is the child-to-adult ratio when outside? How many adults are supervising when children are on play equipment?
  • Do platforms on play structures have guardrails?
  • Is the equipment well maintained with no broken parts, rust, cracks or splinters and free of head-entrapments? What is the system for playground maintenance?
  • What is the surfacing material? If loose-fill, what is the depth?
  • How large is the space? NAEYC accreditation criteria require a minimum of 75 square feet of play space outdoors per child.
  • Is there shade available? Tables for kids to sit and drink water?
  • Is the sandbox inspected regularly? Is the sandbox covered when not in use?
  • How is the landscape maintained?
  • Is the play equipment accessible to all, including children with disabilities?

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

05/7/2009:
"What about a preschool that holds a gym class for 2-3 year olds in a dance studio? The entire circumference of the room is floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The mirrors are completely exposed -- no dancer's barre. The kids are running directly at the mirrors throughout the class. The teacher has put a white line of tape on the floor about two feet from the mirrored wall and the kids are repeatedly instructed to stop there and warned that they could 'crack the mirror and hurt their bodies.' But to rely on an enthused 2 or 3 yr. old running as fast as s/he can to stop short to avoid glass/injury doesn't seem realistic or safe. The school -- an elite Upper west side private preschool in NYC -- refused to find a new location (in a facility with many options) or to place mats against the mirrors. "
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