Safe Learning and Play

School facility managers and maintenance staff are continually seeking new ways to manage outdoor environments that meet the demands of new programs, meet compliance standards and provide for opportunities for students to be healthy and have quality recess experiences. Unfortunately, 80 percent of school injuries happen on the playground.

Students are exposed to unsafe situations because of existing hazardous conditions and lack of maintained equipment and facilities. Despite school-conducted safety inspections, many outdoor environments contain playground equipment and open space that is not age appropriate, do not have proper surfacing under and around equipment and are not well supervised or properly managed. Safety managers and maintenance staff play a key role in managing safe and healthy outdoor environments.

When Mark White was hired as the Environmental Risk Manager for the Lee’s Summit School District in Lee Summit, Mo., he knew there was more to do regarding the outdoor environment. Too many children were getting hurt during recess and he felt the design of the equipment did not match the developmental abilities of the children. He convinced his administrator to send him to Cedar Falls, Iowa, to attend the National Program for Playground Safety’s Safety School. Afterwards, White returned to the district with a goal to change the way his district valued the outdoor play environment.

First, White formed a plan to assess each playground. The school district revised their maintenance checklist to assess the playground equipment, surfacing materials and other recess areas (such as asphalt areas, soccer fields, basketball courts). When schools were installing new equipment, White formed a district policy making sure the equipment was developmentally appropriate, compliant with standards and all children would have access and opportunity to play.

White required that all supervisors receive playground supervision training. Working with other staff, he developed a supervision training program that was used to train all the supervisors in the district’s 16 elementary schools. He and his staff talked to the supervisors about appropriate behaviors to exhibit when supervising and taught them which play behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable. He also taught hazardous situations and how to report unsafe equipment or conditions.

Have White and the Lee’s Summit School District made a difference? Since the effort with Mr. White and his staff, playground injuries in the district have been reduced by 27 percent, and the severity of injuries has been reduced by 35 percent. Management of outdoor play areas involves more than simply fixing something that is broken. Rather, a well-thought-through management program is proactive, responding to needs before crises occur. A comprehensive playground management program includes seven principles for healthy, safe and quality outdoor environments.

Principle #1, Compliance With Playground Standards
The number of child lawsuits is growing rapidly in the United States. When a lawsuit occurs, the playground guidelines become the standard of care. Schools should follow the following guidelines.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board has developed accessibility guidelines for newly constructed and altered play areas. The play area guidelines are a supplemental guide to the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). These guidelines can be downloaded at www.access-board.gov/play/finalrule.htm.
  • American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM): ASTM sets the manufacturing standards for playgrounds and playground surfacing materials. When working with manufacturing companies, schools will want documentation that the equipment is compliant with the ASTM standards.
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC): The purpose of the CPSC Public Playground Safety Handbook is to address the hazards that result in playground-related injuries and deaths. These guidelines can be downloaded at www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/325.pdf.
  • National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF): NCEF provides information on planning, designing, funding, building, improving and maintaining safe, healthy schools. They provide a wealth of information regarding school design. Information about school playgrounds can be downloaded at www.ncef.org/rl/playgrounds.cfm.

Principle #2, Safety and Security
A strategic plan is needed on the location of all elements in the outdoor environment. School managers need to make sure that the natural elements and other types of equipment do not interfere with safety. For security purposes, vegetation and landscape around play areas should be strategically placed and maintained so that children can be visible by the supervisors. Lighting is also critical to safety on school grounds. If the area will be available to the community to use after school hours, exterior lighting should be considered to prevent vandalism.

Principle #3, Age-Appropriate Design
Children should play on equipment that fits their developmental abilities. Public playground equipment is built for children aged six to 23 months, two to five years and five to 12 years (CPSC, 2009). The ASTM has provided standards (F1487) for manufacturers of public equipment for age ranges of two to five and five to 12 years (ASTM, 2007). However, managers of schools understand that children are physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually different. Outdoor space and equipment should match the developmental skills and abilities of children. Therefore, school environments should develop grade-level outdoor play areas separating spaces and equipment to meet the developmental characteristics for children in grades PreK to K, K to 2, 3 and 4 and 5 to 6.

Principle #4, Accessibility

Playground managers should also consider children who have special needs due to some physical, emotional, social or intellectually disability. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal law that indicates every child has the right to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. According to the ADAAG guidelines, the guidelines state that children must have access to the playgrounds and equipment as well as opportunities to play with children who do not have a disability. For a complete understanding of the ADA guidelines, visit www.access-board.gov.

Principle #5, Playground Checklist
It is essential to examine the physical layout, playground equipment, surfacing materials, hard surface areas, soccer fields, basketball courts and any place where children play. Playground checklists are intended to provide a comprehensive list of potential safety hazards. Completion of the checklist should be conducted on a regular basis — monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly — depending on the play area needs and conditions, number of children using the area and environmental conditions. It is important to report and document all hazards that were found. There are several playground checklists resources that are available for schools to use to help protect children from injury.

It can become extremely frustrating for staff, parents and children when safety problems are not corrected. When hazardous situations have been identified, there should be a reporting procedure determined so all staff know how to document problems. In addition, all staff should be trained on what to inspect and how to inspect each piece of equipment and area. Staff training is essential because it helps put everyone on the same page as inspection expectations. Finally, a plan should be in place that provides information on who will repair the situation, how soon the repair should be fixed, who will order the part and who will communicate with administration and supervisors when a situation is corrected. Documentation of all these steps should be kept on file to protect your school in case a lawsuit is filed.

Principle #6, Emergency Planning
Unfortunately, even under the best circumstances injuries do occur. Schools must be prepared to respond to emergency situations, including injuries, natural disasters, violent incidents and unknown adults on the playground. It is important for schools to develop plans for potential emergency situations. A valuable resource during the planning process are local emergency medical technicians, administrators, school nurses and supervisors. Any good emergency process is one that is practiced with the supervisory staff. Just like a tornado, fire or hurricane drill, supervisors, maintenance staff, administrators, teachers and children need to know what to do when an emergency occurs in the outdoor environment.

Principle #7, Managing Documentation
Playground equipment purchased and play areas designed for schools may last for 20 years. Twenty years of use may generate many written and electronic files. Playground managers must store and organize all the documentation forms, such as installation guidelines, maintenance inspection records, manufacturer’s product liability certification of insurance and injury report forms. Documentation is vital when facing a lawsuit. Each documented file should be kept in an organized file or organized electronic file so a manager can obtain certain important documentation when necessary. Written documentation should be stored in a fire-proof cabinet and electronic documentation should be saved on campus servers. Each documentation file should contain the date, the incident, the procedure taken and staff initials of the person completing or modifying the form.

It is hoped that these seven principles will guide school managers with the process of maintaining safe school grounds to enhance learning and play. School managers can take a leading role in making sure the outdoor environment is reaching its fullest potential and providing a quality and safe environment for all children.

Heather Olsen, Ed.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa. Susan D. Hudson, Ph.D., is a professor, University of Northern Iowa. Donna Thompson, Ph.D., is a professor, University of Northern Iowa.

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