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.
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.
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.