How can we make sure our playgrounds are as safe for young children as possible? Early Childhood Today spoke to Donna S.Thompson, Ph.D., program director for the National Program for Playground Safety, about this crucial issue.

EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: What supervision guidelines would you suggest to readers of Early Childhood Today?

DONNA S. THOMPSON: It is critical to look at playground safety from four major perspectives: supervision, age-appropriate design, fall surfacing, and equipment maintenance. Let's start with supervision.

Certainly the best scenario would be if all of our playgrounds were initially designed for easy supervision. But since that is generally not the case, when we're outdoors with children we need to pay constant, close attention-move around the play area and scan every 10 seconds to see what children are doing. We also need to be continually aware of what's happening in their favorite and secret hiding places.

Keep in mind that in order to offer children safe supervision, the teacher/child ratio must be the same outside as it is in the classroom. Adults need to have a signal or plan to notify each other when one must go inside to assist an injured child or accompany a child to the bathroom.

ECT: Has experience given you any other insights you would like to share?

THOMPSON: It's crucial to talk with children and establish playground rules before everyone goes outside. Most preschool children can easily remember up to three rules, especially if they have had a part in deciding on them. Then, close proximity and direct eye contact from supervising adults can reinforce rules and help prevent inappropriate behavior.

Those are strategies. On the practical side, make sure first-aid materials are available, along with your injury report form and a blank sheet of paper to document any maintenance needs. Report problems immediately and check to see that repairs have been completed before you use the playground area again. It's also a good idea to check out your playground every morning before it's used, even if there is a fence around it!

ECT: Would you talk about age-appropriate design?

THOMPSON: Many playgrounds are used for a variety of ages, but it's imperative that there be separate play areas and equipment for children two--five years old and five-12 years old. If separate equipment is not possible, children of these two age groups shouldn't use the playground at the same time. When areas aren't separated and/or these age groups are playing at the same time, it makes it very difficult to supervise. Children don't always know which pieces of equipment are off-limits, and younger children often see older children doing things they want to try, which can certainly cause injuries.

Teachers also need to look at the play value of each piece and ask: Is there enough to interest children of this age group over a period of time? Is the height of equipment appropriate for the age level? How could play on various apparatus be related to our curriculum? What can this equipment do for children?

ECT: You mentioned the importance of safe surfacing, especially under equipment where children might fall, and equipment maintenance.

THOMPSON: Yes. Asphalt, dirt, cement, and grass are not appropriate surfacing materials. Appropriate materials include sand, pea gravel, and rubber or wood products, thick enough for the height of the equipment.

Playgrounds also need appropriate fall zones. The Consumer Product Safety Commission and American Society of Testing and Materials recommend fall zones on all four sides of each piece of equipment equal to twice the distance from the ground to the cross bar. For example, an eight-foot high swing or climber needs 16 feet between it and the closest piece of equipment or fence.

Most public playgrounds are inspected annually. Programs for young children, however, should check each day to make sure all the equipment is in good repair, nothing wobbles, and there is enough cushioning material in fall zones-under swings, at the end of the slide. Frequent use can move material away from these areas and create hazards. Also, check for any trash, splintered wood, loose nuts and bolts, and tires with exposed steel belts.

ECT: What can we teach children to help them prevent injuries?

THOMPSON: Many things: not to play on a playground without an adult present, not to play in areas where there is trash or debris on the ground or on the equipment, and not to play where there is bare ground underneath equipment. We can also ask children to keep their eyes open for loose or missing bolts, and if they see these or feel equipment that moves when they get on, they should notify an adult immediately.

ECT: One final question: What are the goals of the National Program for Playground Safety?

THOMPSON: Our Action Plan will raise awareness and educate people in the areas of supervision, age-appropriate design, fall surfacing materials, and equipment maintenance. We are conducting research in areas related to playground safety and establishing a clearinghouse of information, materials, and videos. In addition, the program will provide training in supervision, planning, and equipment maintenance through the National Playground Safety School, which will be holding sessions during August 2000. For information, contact Linda Love at 319-273-6855.

Donna S. Thompson, Ph.D., is program director for the National Program for Playground Safety. She holds a national Playground Safety Inspector's certification and has appeared on ABC Television's Good Morning America.