Through my many years of working with young children in day nursery and preschool settings, I value and promote the importance of outdoor play - but I also recognise the need to ensure young children are provided with a safe outdoor environment.
As part of your safeguarding responsibilities, the outdoor environment must be considered to ensure children access a safe, secure environment.
The Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework states that ‘providers must take all necessary steps to keep children safe and well.’ Within this ‘providers must provide access to an outdoor play area or, if that is not possible, ensure that activities are planned and taken on a daily basis.’
Here are a few key things to reflect upon…
Daily checks must be completed of the garden/outdoor play area:
- risk assessments for the outdoor space and particular equipment must be in place and reviewed on a regular basis
- checks need to relate to the age/stage and ability of the children
- if you have younger children and babies using the garden, make sure the fences and gates are secure enough that small children cannot climb through or under
- ensure that daily checks and risk assessments consider seasonal changes and the potential hazards that arise in different weather conditions.
Perimeter: shut the gate
Before you send the children outside each day:
- ensure that the perimeter fence is secure
- check there are no holes or areas where children can squeeze under the fence
- if the fence includes sections of hedge - ensure this is thick enough and still secure in winter
Consider how children leave and enter the garden:
- if you have bolts and padlocks, do all staff know where the key is kept?
- if this is your fire exit route, you may need to take advice from the fire service on how to keep this secure as well as safe in the event of a fire so that it is able to be opened swiftly in an emergency.
As we are in the U.K., we do need to consider the whole range of weather conditions and how this can impact on children’s play. It is beneficial for children to experience different types of weather, but children need to wear appropriate clothing to keep themselves safe and protected. Guidance for each weather condition needs to be shared with parents and staff. Access to the outside learning area may need to be restricted in some conditions; some points to consider are listed below.
'The sun has got his hat on'
During a period of hot and sunny weather children need to be protected from the sun. It is our responsibility to ensure they have access to and drink water to keep them hydrated. Things to consider:
- what times children are accessing the outside area, so they are not out at the hottest part of the day
- the use of shade
- ensuring children wear sunhats and sun protection cream - this is vital.
'Blowing in the wind'
Children love playing out in the wind and it provides great opportunities to fly kites and watch leaves as they fall. However, we do need to be aware of items blowing and falling, especially when there are occasions of high winds. Trees and branches can fall and high winds can cause masonry and slates from roofs to fall. When it is windy, always review your outside area and if in doubt - stay inside.
‘Singing in the rain’
Jumping in puddles is great fun, but ensure the children have the correct footwear, coats and rain hats, and be aware of any areas where water collects that could offer a potential drowning risk.
'I hear thunder’
This may be a very familiar song, but many children are frightened by the noise of thunder. With older children, it provides an opportunity for discussion about what is causing the noise. I am sure we have all heard the stories about ‘furniture moving’ and ‘clouds bumping together’. Do be aware that lightning poses a risk, and this weather condition should be treated with caution. Maybe time to withdraw and head inside.
'Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow'
When it comes to winter, we all love a snow day! We do not have regular opportunities to experience snow and we cannot always plan for this experience. Where possible, and with the correct clothing, children should be able to play in the snow, build snowmen, and marvel at snowflakes as they fall out of the sky and seem to disappear. Be sure to check the snow covering in your garden area and be aware of any areas where there may be deeper snow. Be aware of ice and areas that are slippery, or anywhere children and adults can fall and injure themselves. The amount of time young children play outside in snow should be limited to ensure they do not get too cold.
'It's a foggy day and I've lost my way'
Hopefully, when the mist comes in, you won’t be singing about losing your way! Ensure that visibility isn’t so bad that you can’t go outside. A foggy garden experience provides opportunities for discussion about what it is and why it happens, but take care if you have a large expanse of garden, and make sure to set boundaries if the visibility really is impaired. From a health aspect, some children with respiratory issues and asthma may be more affected by the fog.
Playing outside in the garden enables children to experience nature first-hand, but, in the interest of safety, a daily check of the outside area needs to be completed before children access the area. As part of this daily check, you need to look at:
- what has grown overnight - e.g. mushrooms, which grow quickly and can suddenly appear
- what has blown in from outside – e.g. rubbish
- poisonous plants – know what is growing in your garden, and consider that children may try to eat things that aren't safe e.g. berries growing on bushes (see a useful checklist here)
- what animals may have left behind overnight - on occasion, you may even find a dead animal
- weed killer – if you are using weed killer, consider if it's suitable to be used in a garden where children play, if you've followed the guidelines, and if you really need to use weed killer at all
- garden tools in the shed – consider if children have access to these and if the shed is secure.
Early Years gardens and outdoor areas usually provide access to equipment to support and enhance children’s play. Practitioners need to consider if the equipment is:
- suitable for the age and ability of the children
- on a suitable surface
- checked daily for wear and tear.
This includes both static equipment (e.g. climbing frames, swings, slides, roundabouts), and portable equipment (e.g. bikes and wheeled toys, trampoline, mud kitchens, sand pits).
For guidance on recommended safety surfacing for placing under equipment, please see the ROSPA website.
I grew up on a farm, and so I loved playing outside and getting stuck in the mud in my little red wellies. We want children to be able to benefit from playing and learning outside. If you are interested in developing this area of your provision further, I would recommend you access our training or book a consultancy visit with one of the Early Years team to focus on developing your outdoor provision.
To support your overall review of your provision with regards to keeping children safe, HfL offer a half-day safeguarding audit that includes a review of your policies and procedures, a premises safety and security walk, and a thorough check of your safe staffing procedures.
And remember: don’t forget to shut the garden gate!