Health Manager Orientation Guide

Safe Outdoor Environments

A young girl smiles at us from the top of a slide.Outdoor learning environments increase exposure to nature and opportunities for vigorous physical activity. Many nonfatal injuries related to playground equipment occur on public playgrounds. Most occur at schools and early childhood centers. Children ages 4 and younger are often injured falling from climbers, swings, and slides. A good outdoor learning environment allows children to explore the outdoors safely and promotes their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Staff in center-based and home-based programs that provide socialization spaces with outdoor areas or use public playgrounds during socializations may want to review the Public Playground Safety Handbook for relevant information. Family child care providers with backyards may want to review the Outdoor Home Playground Safety Handbook. Both handbooks are published by CPSC.

Outdoor play spaces are subject to a lot of wear and tear. After safe, age-appropriate, and developmentally appropriate equipment has been correctly installed, it still requires regular inspections and maintenance. Just as you do with indoor program environments, develop and use a comprehensive safety checklist before each use of an outdoor space and/or playground.

Develop and regularly assess guidelines for safe, sanitary water play and sandbox areas outdoors. This check of all aspects of the outdoor play environment will identify hazards that may have appeared since it was used last. A daily safety check will also alert you to any pieces of equipment that may have broken or are worn out. Loose or missing parts and sharp edges often cause playground injuries. Remove or restrict children’s access to any immediate hazards. Use your facility’s maintenance system to report and repair equipment, and a tracking system to make sure that the work is completed.

Review program outdoor procedures related to:

  • Sun protection, the availability of shade, and the use of sunscreen for infants older than 6 months
  • Portable first aid kits
  • Emergencies and the appropriate storage of rescue medications that must be available when children are outdoors (e.g., EpiPen® and inhalers)
  • Protecting children from insect bites and stings with appropriately applied bug repellent
  • Access to clean drinking water
  • Use of the Child Care Weather Watch chart to determine when the temperature and air quality are not acceptable to take children outside
  • Pedestrian safety (if leaving facility grounds)
  • Cold weather safety

Reducing risk does not mean limiting play equipment or enforcing rules that restrict young children’s movement or exploration of the environment. An ideal outdoor play space is one that encourages children to challenge themselves while also presenting little risk for injury; in other words, a space that has high challenge but low risk.

See the National Program for Playground Safety and Resources for Safe Playgrounds for more details.

Tips and Strategies for Maintaining Safe Playgrounds

  • A safe outdoor play space starts with selecting and correctly installing structures that are safe and appropriate for the age and developmental level of the children.
    • Make sure equipment meets recommendations in the Public Playground Safety Handbook from the CPSC and ASTM International standards.
    • Designate separate active play areas, such as swings and slides, away from quieter activities, such as the sandbox, nature exploration, and dramatic play.
    • Separate outdoor play spaces based on age. Best practice suggests outdoor space for infants be separate but near outdoor play spaces for toddlers. However, separating infants from toddlers may not always be possible. In those cases, make sure the infant and toddler play area is separate from areas for older children.
  • Unsafe playground surfacing material is the leading cause of playground injury.
    • Surfaces such as asphalt, concrete, dirt, and grass are not acceptable for your outdoor play space. Children falling on these surfaces have an increased risk of serious injury.
    • The surface that lies under and around swings, slides, climbers, and other playground structures should be an impact-absorbing surface to cushion a child’s fall.
    • Loose fill material such as sand, pea gravel, wood chips, engineered wood fiber, rubber mulch, or materials such as tiles, mats, or poured-in-place rubber can safely cushion a child’s fall. However, note that pea gravel and sand are not appropriate protective surfaces for infants and toddlers.
    • Guardrails and protective barriers are also required to minimize the likelihood of falls from elevated platforms.
  • Keep fall zones clear. These are the areas under and around equipment. Check the Public Playground Safety Handbook for specific fall zone measurements. A safe playground surface cannot work if a child falls onto a hard object instead of the surface.
    • These areas must be free of structural hazards such as benches, barrels, fences, and other pieces of play equipment.
    • They should also be free of movable hazards like tricycles, toys, rocks, and groups of children.
  • Active supervision strategies apply to outdoor as well as indoor activity. During outdoor play, many children may be moving around constantly. Programs will want to develop a plan for playground supervision so staff position themselves where they can see all the children and easily reach them.
  • When setting up the outdoor environment, be sure to consider sight lines, distances between activity areas, and potential areas of concern such as a gate or wall.
  • Position staff to maximize the number of children they can see at any one time and to focus on the areas where children are most likely to get hurt. If a staff person must leave the playground, remaining staff should reposition themselves so that no child is left unsupervised.
  • Continually scan, count, and listen, including during transition from one activity to another.
  • Anticipate children’s behavior on specific pieces of equipment and areas of the play space.
  • Supervise children with emerging cognitive and gross motor skills more closely.
  • Redirect children to another part of the playground if there are too many children on one structure.
  • Print out this poster to remind staff about outdoor safety tips.