Safe Play Areas
A Safe Play area on a farm is a carefully planned designated location, within sight and sound of a responsible adult, away from hazards, designated by a physical barrier like a fence and supplied with protective ground cover. The next tabs will outline the key steps to create a safe play area.
Look for a location that is:
- away from the majority of farm activity (traffic, animals, equipment and noise)
- located next or close to the house
- sheltered from sun, wind and dust
- free from pests (bees, ants, snakes, rodents, etc.)
- free of hazardous plants (poison ivy/oak, etc.)
- partially shaded
- free from obstacles (roots, overhead electrical wires, etc.)
- free from open water (pond, water tank, etc.)
- within view and an earshot of a responsible adult (need will vary by child's age).
Plan and design the play area to meet the developmental needs and abilities of the children who will be using it.
Prioritize the activities your children like to do:
- role play
- object play (buckets with sand, balls, dolls, cars/trucks, etc)
- play with other children
- physical play
- quiet observation.
When choosing activities, consider:
- cost, time to build, expertise, etc.
- whether the activity works for your play site.
- assemble and anchor play equipment according to manufacturer’s instructions
- WARNING: avoid using railroad ties (which are normally treated with creosote), wood preservatives (pentachlorophenol, tributyl tin oxide and chromated copper arsenate) and lead-based paint
- consider planning for additions, deletions and modification as children grow and want greater play challenges.
Draft a layout of the play area see additional sections for recommendations on how to create the play area. For more detailed information on planning your safe play area visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's Outdoor Home Playground Safety Handbook. For more information on developmental characteristics, age related safety issues and play ideas, see Child Development and Play (PDF 67KB)
To protect your child surround play area with a sturdy Child Protective Fence.
- Barriers are the most important feature of a safe play area and are usually the most expensive.
- The ideal barrier is a fence with a self-latching childproof gate.
- Fencing should be:
- sturdy, easy to maintain
- hard to climb and lacking footholds
- minimum height of 4 feet
- free of pinch points or sharp edges
- free from picket tops, barbed or multiple strand high-tensile wire
- measured so vertical boards are less than 3 ½ inches to avoid head entrapment.
To view comparisons of various types of fencing, see Fencing Guidelines and Recommendations (PDF 117KB)
WARNING: Never use one fence to both restrain animals and border a safe play area.
To prevent injuries from falls, use ground cover under play equipment that is higher than 12 inches (slides, swings, etc.).
Protective groundcover should be:
- soft and thick enough to absorb the shock of falls
- at least 9 inches deep of these loose fill types
- pea gravel (see warning below)
- engineered wood fiber or wood chips
- shredded or recycled rubber
- continually maintained by raking or grading
- never installed over hard surfaces (concrete)
To view information on ground cover types see Groundcover Comparisons and Recommendations (PDF 108KB).
WARNING: Pea gravel is considered a choking hazard for infants and toddlers. Landscaping wood mulch is no longer recommended for ground cover due to quick deterioration and prevalence of molds.
An ideal play area has activities to meet your child’s developmental stage and ability. When building a safe play area, provide play structures and materials that will allow children to experience different types of play.
- Balance Play - log or balance beam, hopping on flat stones or landscaping bricks.
- Ball Play – throwing, kicking, rolling or catching a ball.
- Climbing Play – ladders, rock wall.
- Fantasy Play - role play, theater, puppet show.
- Manipulative Play - building blocks, sandbox toys, gardening.
- Riding Play - riding a tricycle, bicycle or non-motorized scooter.
- Sliding Play – slides, chutes, sledding.
- Swinging Play - swings, tire swings, rings.
Quality play equipment does not have to be expensive. For example: balls, sandboxes, non-sharp kitchen utensils, tree swings are all inexpensive. See Play Ideas (PDF 96KB) for low cost play idea options.
Keep in mind the play area equipment on a farm should be:
- appropriate for the ages of children who are using it
- played with as the designer/manufacturer intended
- free from entrapment hazards, gaps need to be less than 3 1/2 inches or greater than 9 inches
- without bolt ends, edges, or other protrusions extending beyond 1/16 inch that can catch clothing
- smooth to avoid wood or metal slivers
- without pinch, crush, shearing, and sharp edge hazards
- surfaced with appropriate ground cover to cushion a fall and extending well beyond the area just beneath the piece of play equipment
- constructed of materials that do not absorb excessive heat from sun exposure
- securely anchored to prevent overturns
- well maintained by an adult
Children are imaginative; play equipment can be basic and still a lot of fun. For information on specific equipment specifications visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Public Playground Safety Handbook.
To prevent injuries, always inspect the play area for hazards before play.
Leading causes of injuries on playgrounds:
- falls from play equipment onto unprotected ground
- strangulations by clothing that becomes entangled on protrusions and projections greater than 1/16 inch
- head entrapments from entry into an opening between 3 1/2 and 9 inches
- injuries from equipment tipping over due to improper anchoring.
Ways to reduce injuries:
- maintain the proper depth of ground cover under elevated surfaces
- avoid loose clothing and remove drawstrings on hoods and waists
- remove bike helmets when children are on play equipment
- measure openings; make sure they are less than 3 ½ inches or more than 9 inches
- measure S hook openings, making sure they are no larger than 1/16 inch (or the width of a dime)
- remove all sharp edges and protrusions, screws should not extend more than 2 threads beyond the nut
- be sure play area is at least 30% shaded
- avoid overexposure to the sun by:
- staying hydrated (drinking fluids) to avoid heat illness
- covering exposed skin
- wearing a sun safe hat and sun glasses
- applying sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside with at least SPF 15 and UVA/UVB protection, reapplying every hour
- limiting the time in the sun during the hottest portion of the day, typically 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- limit swings to no more then 2 swings per bay to avoid collisions
- space swings 24 inches apart with 30 inches between the swing and supporting structures
- avoid diseases carried by insects or animals; visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Outdoor Safety
- use proper hand washing after play.
Good adult supervision involves careful attentive monitoring of a child and minimizes injuries. The proper type of supervision depends on the age of a child, the number of children playing, the type of play and the location. To determine which supervision type is needed review Child Development and Play (PDF 67KB). The following supervision types are recommended for safe play areas on a farm:
- constant supervision - an adult is always within sight and sound of a child
- intermittent supervision - when an adult is out of sight and sound for up to 15 minutes
- periodic supervision - visual observation of a child at least every 15 – 30 minutes.
Develop a routine maintenance plan based on use, children's ages, materials and your environmental conditions to reduce injuries:
- cut grass and remove snow
- rake and replace ground cover as needed
- check play equipment for loose or missing parts
- seal, stain or paint wooden structures
- apply anti-rust treatment to exposed metal
- replace cracked plastic equipment
- regularly replace sand and water in play area to avoid contamination by animal wastes.
For more information on important features of safe play areas including environmental health factors that should be considered, how play helps children develop or for more play ideas, see Creating Safe Play Areas on Farms (PDF 6.31 MB). Also available is a condensed smaller mini-edition see Creating Safe Play Areas on Farms 2010 Mini-Edition in English (PDF 1.01 MB) or Spanish (PDF 1.03 MB).
For more information on how to set up a demonstration play area model at an event, see Interactive Demonstrations of Safe Play Areas At Rural and Agricultural Events (PDF 1.52 MB).
For a free copy of any of the safe play area resources, please call the National Children's Center (800) 662-6900 or email a request for a print copy to: firstname.lastname@example.org.