Playground Supervision: A Big Responsibility

By Matt Comai

School is out, and summer camp is in. Many of our towns and schools are hosting summer camps at their local facilities. A focal point of the day is the playground.

Taking Risks

Children love playgrounds. Playgrounds provide an opportunity for youngsters to explore and take risks, which assists in their physical, emotional and psychological development. Due to this exploration and risk taking, there is an expectation that injuries will occur on playgrounds.

According to the Consumer Safety Product Commission (CPSC), a 1999 study learned that more than 200,000 children are treated in emergency rooms for injuries sustained on playgrounds each year. About 148,000 of these injuries (76 percent) occur on public playgrounds—45 percent at schools and 31 percent at parks. In addition, the National Playground Safety Institute notes that 44 percent of playground injuries are due to improper use or lack of supervision.

Be Attentive

So what constitutes good supervision? At summer camp, the playground period is likely to be one of the only times during the day that the children have “free" time. That said, it is important that supervision of playground time be adequate and attentive. The ideal ratio of participants to supervisors is seven to one (7:1). Since this may not be realistic in most summer camp settings, it is imperative that the quality of supervision be raised to compensate for an inadequate number of supervisors.

Good supervision starts with a daily inspection of the premises to ensure that the equipment and grounds are in good condition. Here is a handy to-do list:

Pick up all litter.
Ensure trash receptacles are readily available.
Inspect all playground equipment.
Immediately report any discovered deficiencies to the managing agency which provides maintenance so needed repairs and/or replacements are done promptly.
Make sure bees haven’t started a new nest in and around playground equipment. (This can happen very quickly!)
Regular attention to this checklist can create and raise your playground supervisor’s awareness of potential hazards and enable them to more quickly identify a potentially hazardous situation.

Surface Evaluation

Falls to a playground surface reportedly cause 79 percent of all playground injuries, according to the CPSC. So evaluating your playground’s surfacing material is another critical step to perform regularly.

Surfacing material must be at the proper depth for the type and height of equipment you have. Areas such as slide exits, under climbers and swings should get the most attention, and frequent redistribution of the material must be done as often as is needed, based on the playground’s use, to ensure the material’s proper depth.

Staff To-Do’s

At the start of camp, it’s important to review the playground rules with all participants. Consistency in enforcing the rules is important as well as consequences for misbehavior or misuse of the equipment. When participants see consistency of rule enforcement—and applied consequences—they are more likely to follow the rules. There should also be a demonstration presented on proper use of equipment so the excuse “I didn’t know" is never heard.

Make sure staff is spread out on the playground and that they move around. Camp staff sometimes finds the playground to be a good place to catch up on last night’s activities or to talk about their weekend plans. Each supervisor should have a zone that they are responsible for watching over. The more visible and engaged they are, the more likely the children will adhere to all playground rules.

Closest attention should be paid to the high-risk playground elements like climbers, slides and swings. Campers on swings should all swing facing the play area; climbers should be monitored for platform crowding. Slides should also be observed for crowding at both the ladder and the exit end.

Age Appropriate

While we encourage children to take some risks, we must also be aware of their physical abilities and make sure the equipment they use is age appropriate. Many playgrounds have equipment for pre-school age (2-6 years) children separated from the equipment for school-age children (6-12 years).

Supervisors should always be prepared to assist participants who are struggling and may also need some encouragement.

Safety Training

The New Hampshire Local Government Center (LGC) offers a one-hour Playground Safety and Supervision training that focuses on techniques for effective and consistent supervision. For more information, visit the “Training and Consulting" section of LGC’s website, contact our Risk and Health Management Department by calling 800.852.3358 or e-mail risk&health@nhlgc.org.

In summary, it’s important to have knowledgeable, attentive supervision on playground as it can prevent a significant amount of injuries and some potentially serious lawsuits. Creating a culture that appreciates safety through better awareness is the key to sustaining a successful safety program for your recreation staff.

Matt Comai is a School Risk Management Representative of New Hampshire Local Government Center.