Current Course - Level 2 Award in Health and Safety - Early Years

In This Chapter

This chapter deals with common accidents involving play activities and play equipment in a professional childcare environment, both in door and out of doors, and considers how through good procedures and training the risk to child safety can be minimised and controlled.

EYFS outcomes covered in this chapter:

  • 3.20 - 3.26 Staff qualifications, training, support and skills
  • 3.50 - 3.51 Accidents and injuries
  • 3.54 - 3.55 Safety and suitability of premises, environment and equipment
  • 3.5 - 3.63 Premises
  • 3.64 Risk assessment


Play is important to child development. Research shows that play has many benefits for children, families and the wider community, as well as improving health and quality of life.

Benefits of play:

  • Increased self-awareness and self-esteem
  • Improved physical and mental health
  • Provides an opportunity to (learn to) mix with other children
  • Promotes imagination, independence and creativity
  • Builds resilience through risk taking, problem solving, and dealing with new situations
  • It’s fun

Health and Safety should not be used as a reason or excuse to discourage or stop play. Risk taking is an important and exciting part of learning and development. The goal should not be to entirely eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits, then strike a balance between protecting children from the most serious risks, and allowing them to experience the benefits of play and prepare for the future.

Play and the Law

You have a Duty of Care which is a legal obligation to ensure that play activities are safe and fit-for-purpose. In theory, every play activity taking place should have been through a risk-assessment. If you get a new item of equipment, e.g. install a new play house, the risk assessment should happen before the first child gets to play with it.

Play Equipment Accidents

Reasons for play equipment accidents:

  • Poor equipment design or layout
  • Unsuitable equipment for the intended age group
  • Incorrect assembly or installation of equipment
  • Poor play equipment maintenance
  • Failure to inspect equipment (or act on a known problem)
  • Lack of appropriate supervision
  • Use of equipment in unsuitable clothes or weather conditions

External Play Surfaces

Falls are the main danger in outside play. It’s vital to site any equipment identified as a potential fall hazard on an appropriate surface.

Grass - Grass is a natural material and good developmentally. It is the view of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) that grass is a suitable material for use under and around equipment from which falls of less than 1.5m are possible.

Bark, sand, wood chips - Natural and low-cost Impact Absorbing Surfaces. All require maintenance and periodic replacement, and all work better when regularly raked and loosened.

Rubber compound flooring - Recommended around play equipment and fall areas/higher risk areas. Studies have proven this type of flooring reduces the severity of slips, trips and fall accidents, particularly head injuries.

Tarmac and Concrete - Offers no impact protection whatsoever and is not recommended for outside play spaces.

Play Equipment Quality Standards

Any Quality Standard mark cannot mean that the specific toy or equipment you are using or considering is completely safe. Quality Standards simply mean the design has been inspected and considered safe within reasonable use.

Remember you still have to install, use and supervise the play within the scope of ‘reasonable use’. If you don’t fit a car seat properly or strap the child in correctly, you cannot blame the manufacturer when the baby flies out of the window whilst driving round a corner.

The following describes how quality standards/marks work in the UK and what to watch out for when making toy and play equipment purchases.

British Standards (BS)/European Union (EU) Standards - This is a partnership between manufacturers, safety experts, government and legislators to establish minimum quality standards, backed by UK and EU law. By Law, goods should pass the safety sections of these standards. They are often marked on the packaging of the product, and in some cases are on the product itself.

UK/EU safety standards for toys and equipment:

Safety Seats: Standard ECE R44.03

Toys: Standard EN71

Cots: Standard EN716

Highchairs: Standard BS 14988-1

Pushchairs and Prams: Standard BS 7409

Safety Gates: Standard EN1930

Dressing Up Items: Standard EN71 (it may be worth noting that this standard is the same as for Toys rather than for clothes which can have implications for flammability).

The Kitemark - This means that the BSI (British Standards Institution) has independently tested the item, confirms that the product design conforms to the relevant British Standard, and has issued a BSI license to the company to use the Kitemark. Manufacturers pay for this service, it’s a voluntary scheme but considered trustworthy and rigorous.

The Lion Mark - The Lion Mark was launched in 1989 by the BTHA (British Toy and Hobby Association) to act as a recognisable consumer symbol indicating safety and quality to UK toy buying consumers.

The CE Mark - This symbol plus the name and address of the manufacturer/original first supplier is required by Law to appear on all toys in the EU since 1990. This is NOT a safety symbol. The CE mark simply indicates that the toy or equipment is for sale in the EU and meets the (quite basic) safety requirements of ETSD (European Toy Safety Directive).

Second-Hand Goods

While all new products should meet minimum safety standards, second-hand goods may have been built to an old standard, or there may not have been a standard at all when they were made. In addition, wear and tear may have made them unsafe. If in any doubt about the safety of items designed for young children, especially second-hand ones then don't use them.

Play Equipment General Advice

Trampolines, swings, slides, climbing frames and inflatables are some of the many popular types of play equipment that children love to play with, yet all of them present their own potential risks.

Universal play equipment advice:

  • Take action to reduce the risks and supervise children whilst they play
  • Allow children to only play on equipment which suitable to their age and developmental stage
  • Check that all play equipment is in good working condition
  • Make sure safety features are bought as well: safety nets, mats and helmets as appropriate
  • Purchase good quality play equipment with appropriate quality marks
  • Assemble, secure, test and maintain play equipment properly - following manufacturer's instructions

Let’s look at some specific play activity and play equipment related hazards and how best to minimise any threats to child safety…

1. Sand Pits

Sand play is one of the most popular pieces of equipment which can be provided in play.

Sand play advice:

  • Position the sandpit/sand play area in the shade in summer and in full view of staff
  • Have a cover to prevent animals accessing or using as toilet (cats are notorious for this)
  • Visually inspect prior to use, and rake to check for foreign bodies
  • Regularly sieve the sand to remove foreign objects
  • Ideally use white sand and replace when contaminated
  • Supervise children at all times
  • Regularly disinfect with a weak solution of child-safe household disinfectant sprinkled on using a watering can (keep children out of the sand area for a day afterwards)

2. PVC Crash Mats

PVC backed foam cushioned mats, commonly referred to as ‘crash mats’ provide good protection levels particularly when covering hard floors such as concrete or tiled areas.

Crash mat advice:

  • Mats should be used in high-risk areas, including around slides and other climbable equipment
  • PVC fabrics and surfaces should be washed down with detergent solution and, if necessary, a weak disinfectant solution (dependent on soiling)
  • The depth (thickness) of matting should be proportionate to the risk, a 1 inch mat is not suitable protection for anything other than a very minor fall
  • Be aware that secondary injuries may occur where the child bounces off the mat and onto some other object resulting in a head injury
  • Mat choice should be clearly identified in the documented safe procedures for the play activity in question.

3. Ball Pools

Although clearly safer than water, accidents involving ball pools can and do still happen. Remember to design, risk assess and supervise carefully.

Ball pool advice:

  • Ball pools should have a maximum depth of 0.45m to minimise the danger of concealment of accidents
  • Ball pools should not be entered directly from a slide
  • Balls should be a minimum diameter of 70mm to prevent choking, ball pool surfaces should have continuous level bases and slides that are easily cleanable (carpet not recommended)
  • If the ball pool becomes soiled, evacuate and close immediately.Remove all balls into net bags, wash in water containing a detergent solution, immerse in a solution of sanitizer, drain and allow to air dry fully, clean base and sides and dry, inspect before replacing

4. Water Safety

Water holds a particular fascination for children under the age of five. It’s unlikely that you will have a garden pond at your childcare premises, but any rainwater butts, paddling pools or simply buckets half full of rainwater, a young child will invariably investigate.

Of all the play activities, water requires the closest and more careful supervision. And it doesn’t have to be a formal water feature or play activity to involve tragedy. Water can easily gather in various ways outside to become a potential drowning trap.

UK child drowning deaths:

  • 131 children drowned between 1993 and 2003 in a ‘small body of water’ (pond, paddling pool, water butt, bucket for example)
  • Children aged 1-2 are particularly at risk (rapidly increasing mobility, little/no concept of danger)
  • Children 4+ are less at risk (begin to understand danger and listen to warnings)
  • Drowning often occurs within a couple of minutes of the supervising adult being distracted
  • 50% of drownings occur when the child escaped supervision after ‘wandering off’

4. Water Safety (continued) - Paddling Pools

HSE statement on paddling pools:

“A paddling pool, even if shallow, involves a low but irremovable risk of drowning (even with supervision) but this is normally tolerable. The likelihood is typically extremely low, the hazard is readily apparent, children benefit through their enjoyment and through the learning experience of water play and finally, further reduction or management of risk is not practicable without taking away the benefits”.

Whether your nursery chooses to use a paddling pool (or other water play, many do not) will depend on the management decision and risk assessment.

Paddling pool advice:

  • Paddling pools should always be emptied and turned upside down after use
  • If soiling occurs close, drain and clean the pool with detergent then weak disinfectant
  • Beware of distraction, e.g. dealing another injury, the phone, or answering the door
  • Supervise, supervise, supervise!

5. Inflatable Play

Kids love inflatables and they can be a great way to experience, learn and share. However they are not without their risks.

Inflatable advice:

  • Site the inflatable on level flat ground, free from sharp objects
  • Ensure play is age appropriate, inflatables are generally not suitable for those under 2 yrs.
  • Do not mix children of different weight or height or age, do not overload
  • Make sure the blower is at least 1.2 metres from the inflatable (reduces likelihood of child falling onto it)
  • Make sure the equipment has the appropriate safety kite marking, ideally a PIPA
  • Use surround mats to reduce the severity of any fall from equipment
  • Do not allow children to climb the sides or otherwise use not as intended by manufacturer
  • Deflate the inflatable after use to prevent unsupervised use
  • Risk assess and train staff
  • Always supervise and do not allow children to use if sufficient additional supervision is not available
  • Beware of children crawling around blind side of equipment or attempting to go underneath If electrical fans are in wet conditions (dew, damp, rain etc.) they can offer multiple threats to inquisitive children

6. Climbing Frames

Climbing frames offer children a great active way of learning. The most obvious injuries are falls and there have also been crush and strangulation deaths associated with climbing frames.

Climbing frame advice:

  • Carefully situate climbing frames on level ground and in direct view of staff
  • Fix them with appropriate foundations and fixings to prevent it toppling over
  • Climbing frames should be well designed with suitable safety standard marking (and a factory risk assessment)
  • There should be appropriate Impact Absorbing Surface used under and around the equipment
  • All ropes must be fixed top and bottom to reduce the likelihood of becoming entangled
  • All ropes should have only modest movement between fixings meaning it cannot be twisted around the neck/body to create a loop
  • Risk assess the climbing frame once it is in position and give care to assessing the danger of any blind spot it may create from staff view
  • Careful supervision is a given hopefully!

7. Seesaws and Swings

The most obvious injury is a fall or injuring another child by swinging into them. The same warnings apply over equipment using ropes described in the previous (climbing frames and ropes) section.

Play swing advice:

  • Swing design should be age appropriate and should not be used by children under 2 yrs. old
  • Young children should only use a swing with full support (i.e. the ‘sit in’ rather than ‘sit on’ variety)
  • Swings should be sited on level ground and surrounded by an impact absorbing surface
  • Swings should be regularly inspected and maintained
  • Supervision is key to preventing injuries (falls, walking in front of a swinging child etc.)

8. Slides

Slides are classic piece of play equipment. They are also really easy to fall off, whether it’s climbing up, on top and off the side on the way back down. Then add the possibility of hitting someone or something at the bottom. Great fun though!

Slide advice:

  • Ensure slides have the appropriate quality and safety standards
  • Buy slides that have sides that are at least 64mm high
  • Ensure the slide is firmly fixed and cannot wobble in use
  • Ensure there are guard sections and hand grips at the top of the slide, as these will help prevent falls
  • Ensure the slide is correctly assembled, checked and maintained
  • Site the slide on flat ground and protect potential falls areas with cushioned crash matting (ladder area, sides and landing area)

9. Sit-and-ride Toys

Sit-and-ride toys (also called ride-on-toys) can be many people’s favourite memories from being little; nothing beats that feeling of power and freedom from the ‘open road’...

Ride-on toy advice:

  • Ensure all toys meet the appropriate quality standards (preferably Kite Mark and Lion Mark)
  • Supervise children, ensure only one child rides at once if it's designed for one person
  • Consider helmets, even if not strictly essential, wearing one sets a good example for later years and can be part of the play
  • Inspect regularly for wear, loose parts that could become choking hazards
  • Make sure the children follow the rules you set for conduct, the responsibility expected to be able to drive/ride can be a valuable learning opportunity
  • Don’t let any child ride barefoot
  • Make sure all ride-on toys are age appropriate, too large or too small for the child are both equally dangerous;
  • Don’t let children ride near steps, hills, water, roads (obviously!)

The Great Escape…

Continuing this theme of creativity, children are also adept at combining equipment to create new hazards (or increase risk of existing ones) in ways that individual risk assessment would not ordinarily identify. The image of a mini Steve McQueen attempting to jump the childcare centre fence on a sit-and-ride is not so far from the truth!

Examples of (dangerous) creative combined use of equipment:

  • Moving equipment to climb a fence and escape (the great escape)
  • Moving/pulling objects to otherwise access an area not previously thought accessible
  • Using equipment to help reach dangerous objects or access areas they want
  • Attempting to ride down a slide on an object (increasing the speed/height/fall risk)
  • Carrying impressive objects up equipment (to throw or fall down on other children)

These are just a few examples. The main point is to consider combinations of equipment and activities in the same environment. Remember, children have great imaginations!

Messy play

Messy play is a popular activity used in Early Years settings to allow children to use their senses and explore. The messy play is generally placed in a sand/water tray. Ensure the contents do not have ingredients that can cause an allergic reaction to any child present. Ensure the activity is supervised. A recent reported nursery fatality involved a jelly cube used in messy play on which a child choked to death.

A final thought…

It is important to assess risk from a variety of different points of view – what may be safe for one person may present a hazard for another. When you are carrying out risk assessments, get down to the level of your children to see what they can see and channel your Inner Child so you can think what they may see as exciting, interesting or intriguing. Why not appoint one or more children as ‘Assessors’, ‘Health Elf’ or ‘Health and Safety Helpers’ to help you so they can help you see things from their individual points of view?

learner outcomes

Chapter summary

By the end of this chapter you should have developed the following understanding and insights:

  • An awareness of a range of play and play equipment safety threats
  • An understanding of guidelines and controls to reduce or eliminate play equipment accidents
  • An awareness of UK/EU play equipment quality standards including CE, Kitemark and Lion Mark
Click to go to Chapter 7 Recap