Your outdoor child care environment will look different depending on the type of program you operate and the ages of the children in care. The outdoor environment should be a place for children to experience big body play, exploration and fresh air.
This section will address child care programs with outdoor play spaces that are on-site. However, even Family Child Care Homes that do not have on-site play areas can use this guidance to evaluate the space and equipment at nearby parks and schools. All outdoor play areas should include equipment of the right size and type for the children in care and room for freedom of movement. The space should be secure to prevent children from wandering off or having access to roads. The grounds and equipment should be free of hazards and debris. Think about the following topics when selecting or creating an outdoor play space.
Your outdoor play area should be easy to access from your program. All areas of your outdoor place space should be visible to staff and easily supervised at all times. Ideally the space would be on level ground and free of natural hazards. This includes any body of water, such as ditches, streams and ponds. However, if there is a body of water, ensure that it fenced and inaccessible to children. Your play space should have areas of shade. Make sure that any metal equipment (e.g. slides) is placed in the shade to avoid burns.
Your outdoor space should be surrounded by a fence or natural barriers. This helps you to supervise your children and keep unwanted people out of the area. Not all states require fencing for Family Child Care programs to be licensed, but it is helpful when supervising children.
- Fencing should have no sharp points or edges. There should be no openings between 3.5 inches and 9 inches.
- Choose fencing that prevents climbing from either side.
- Wood material is not the best choice for fences because of potential splintering. They also attract insects and require high maintenance. If you do choose wood, make sure it has not been treated with creosote or pesticides and that it has not been painted with lead-based paint. Redwood and cedar are good choices.
- Metal should be rust resistant.
Your playground extends your child care environment to the outdoors. For children, outdoor play is as important as indoor play. Large play equipment helps children develop large motor skills such as running, climbing and riding tricycles or other wheel toys. With adult guidance and supervision on a playground, children can learn to experience risk-taking and develop risk control.
More than 200,000 injuries occur on playgrounds every year. Following the recommendations below can help prevent playground injuries in your program.
Equipment installation: When you have playground equipment installed, follow the manufacturers’ instructions.
- Spacing: The manufacturers’ instructions will tell you how much space to leave around playground equipment. In general, there should be a 6-foot clearance around any structure. Equipment should be spaced so that children on one piece of equipment will not interfere with children playing on or running to another piece of equipment. Placing moving equipment, such as swings and merry-go-rounds, on the outer edges of the play area can help prevent collisions.
- Entrapment: There should be no openings between 3.5 inches and 9 inches. In some situations, a child can place his or her body through an opening. Because the head is wider than the body, the head may not be able to pass through the opening that the body passed through. This can result in serious injury or possibly death.
- Entanglement: Drawstrings on clothing, loose clothing or shoestrings can become entangled when bolts are not placed on equipment properly. Bolts should not protrude more than the diameter of the bolt. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has issued important information about standards for drawstrings on children’s clothing to prevent strangulation on playground equipment.
- ‘S’ Hooks: Close all open ‘S’ shaped hooks on playground equipment. Children can catch their fingers or the drawstrings on their clothing in an open ‘S’ hook, resulting in injury or strangulation. ‘S’ hooks are usually found on swings but may also be found on other equipment.
Playground surfacing: Inadequate playground surfacing material is the leading cause of playground injury. Wood chips, pea gravel, sand, synthetic or rubber tiles, shredded rubber, mats or poured-in-place rubber are safe choices. Unsafe choices include concrete, asphalt, blacktop, packed earth or grass. It is important to frequently inspect materials underneath “fall zones.” Underneath swings, the bottoms of slides and under and around climbing equipment are considered “fall zones.” These areas require cushioning material to prevent injuries.
Age-Appropriate Toys and Equipment
The right play equipment will depend on your space and the age(s) of children in care. Safe playground equipment is different for every age group. Playground equipment should be separate for children under 2 years old, 2-5 years old and over 5 years old. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Public Playground Safety Handbook, playground equipment for each age group may include:
6 – 23 months:
- Climbing equipment under 32 inches
- Single file step ladders
- Slides/Spiral slides less than 360°
- Spring rockers
- Swings with full bucket seats
2 – 5 years:
- Balance beams under 12 inches
- Horizontal ladders under 60 inches high (for 4-5 year olds)
- Rung ladders
- Slides/Spiral slides
- Spring rockers
- Swings (belt, full bucket seats, rotating tire)
5 – 12 years:
- Arch climbers
- Free-standing climbers with flexible parts
- Ladders (horizontal, step and rung)
- Slides/Spiral slides
- Swings (belt and rotating tire)
- Vertical sliding poles
In addition to playground equipment, age-appropriate toys for outdoor play may include:
- Push/Pull toys
- Riding toys
- Sand box and sand toys – Be sure that you can cover your sandbox securely and that it allows for drainage. Try to place a sandbox in a place that is shielded from wind.
- Water table and toys – Always supervise children at a water table. Be sure that the water is fresh and clean. Provide enough toys for several children to play at once. Avoid toys like cups and bottles, as these tend to encourage children to drink the water. Provide toys for pouring, measuring, squirting and dripping.
State Licensing Regulations for Your Outdoor Environment
If your program is required to have a child care license, you’ll need to meet any standards set by your state for your child care environment. To find your state’s child care licensing regulations and get in touch with your licensing office, visit our State by State Resource Map. Click on your state to find child care licensing information for your area.
Plan to inspect your outdoor play area daily to reduce injuries to the children in your care. Several checklists are available in the resources provided below to make this exercise quick and easy for you.
Additional Outdoor Environment Resources
- News You Can Use: Outdoor Spaces from the Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center (ECLKC) Infant and Toddler Resources
- Caring for Our Children Basics: Health and Safety Foundations for Early Care and Education from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
- Caring for Our Children – Chapter 6: Play Areas/Playgrounds and Transportation from the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education
- Playgrounds by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
- Playground Safety Tips by Safe Kids Worldwide
- National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS)
- National Recreation and Park Association
Health and Safety Checklists for Child Care Programs
Center-Based and Family Child Care programs may use these checklists to evaluate health and safety in their environment, policies, and procedures. Both checklists cover topics that are often found in licensing requirements. Regardless of which tool is used, programs should always work with a child care licensor to ensure that they meet state licensing requirements in all areas.
- Caring for Our Children Basics: Program Review Tool (based on Caring for Our Children Basics minimum health and safety standards for out-of-home child care settings)
- Health and Safety Screener: Policies and Procedures for Head Start Programs (designed for Head Start programs but may also be useful for child care programs)