Many of the accidents that happen in child care programs happen on the playground. Of these, many of the most serious can be related to lack of proper supervision. Child care regulations issued by the states are generally silent on outdoor playground supervision. Indeed, the general rule appears to be no rule at all, or implicitly to allow less supervision on the playground than indoors. But the opposite should be true.
Regardless of how safe your playground equipment is, children have immature judgment regarding the hazards inherent in playgrounds and playground activities. A little thought and strategic planning can boost supervision practices on the playground to much better levels. Here are tips that may help you improve your program’s playground supervision.
1. Maintain child-to-staff ratios on the playground. Whether or not your state mandates supervision on the playground, make sure your program keeps the same child-to-staff ratios outdoors as indoors. And remember, these are minimum standards only. Because of distractions, more staff members may be required to supervise the children.
2. Keep at least two staff members supervising on the playground at all times. Can one staff person adequately supervise more than two children on the playground? Usually not. It can be difficult to keep even a small group of children together on the playground, and a single supervisor can easily be drawn to one child and lose sight of the rest.
3. Staff members should work together to keep all children within at least one staff member’s line sight. Staff should be located so their fields of vision overlap slightly to cover the whole area. Physically map out your playground on paper and place staff members so the whole area is in their view. Make staff aware of how wide an area they must supervise.
4. Have a playground emergency plan. Formulate the goals you must achieve in a playground emergency – for instance, getting medical attention for the child if necessary, including CPR and 9-1-1 assistance; getting additional staff help onto the playground; and coordinating communications, including contacting parents.
5. Rehearse the emergency plan. Conduct drills. Rehearse several different types of scenarios. Will you require there always to be someone on the playground who can administer CPR? Who will take charge in an emergency? Besides teaching staff members their roles, simulations reduce the potential for anxiety during a real emergency.
6. Keep outside staff in communication with each other, with inside staff, and with medical and rescue services. Supervisors on the playground may be beyond each other’s earshot, outside the hearing of people inside the facility, and far from a phone. If possible, bridge the communication gap with cellular communication devices, mobile phones, or walkie-talkies.
7. Make sure at least one person on the playground can communicate with a staff person inside without leaving the children alone. This is the most crucial link between an emergency on the playground and the outside world, which is frequently where help lies.
8. Inspect your playground equipment to see if a child could be trapped anywhere out of reach of an adult. Go over your equipment to see if there are any spots, such as the top of a tall slide, where a child could be trapped and out of reach. If there is truly no access to the child, remove that equipment.
9. Ask parents to remove strings from children’s clothing. Children who have strings dangling from their jackets are a danger to themselves. The strings can get caught on protrusions on the equipment or in gaps, and a hood can turn into a noose, causing strangulation and death.
10. Like lifeguards, staff members on the playground should keep their eyes moving and watch out for fatigue and eye strain. When supervising children on the playground, keep your eyes scanning the entire area of the playground you are responsible for. Communicating with the children verbally is a good way to stay alert and let the children know you are monitoring them. Wear sunglasses in bright, sunny conditions, and wear sun block and head protection (a hat, umbrella, or shade) in the heat.
Improving playground supervision requires a little common sense, planning, and follow-up, and it can reap huge dividends for the children you serve. By building excellence into your playground supervision practices, you can give children the opportunity they need to play, explore, exercise, and grow.
Eileen Hull is vice president of child care insurance programs at Markel Insurance Company.