* “Go and play”

boy-608821_640“Go and play.”  These are the words kids may hear when they report problems at recess.  How safe is a playground?  How well is it supervised?  What are some ways to improve playground safety?

Let’s be honest.  The playground can be a tough place to supervise.  There are often blind spots behind climbing structures, the surface material may not soften falls, kids/adults may be too far away from each other for effective monitoring, and kids may use this time to bully others or dare them to take greater risks on equipment.  In most schools I’ve worked, playground supervision is probably second only to cafeteria duty in appeal to teacher assistants.

The playground can be a dangerous place, physically and socially.  Between 2001 to 2008, a staggering average of 218,851 injuries required emergency department care, mostly from falls.  That obviously doesn’t include all those cases where kids get ice and bandages from the school nurse. The National Program for Playground Safety identifies supervision as one of the key elements in ensuring student safety.  Playgrounds are also ripe fields for bullying.  At StopBullying.gov, children who are bullied generally have one or more of the following risk factors:

  • Are perceived as different from their peers, such as being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing, being new to a school, or being unable to afford what kids consider “cool”
  • Are perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves
  • Are depressed, anxious, or have low self esteem
  • Are less popular than others and have few friends
  • Do not get along well with others, seen as annoying or provoking, or antagonize others for attention

Do those risk factors ring a bell?  For special needs kids, or black students in a mostly white school, recess may not be a time to relax.  It’s a time when these kids need greater support from supervisors who may not be equipped to provide it.  Over the years, I have attended a number of training sessions on how to improve playground supervision.  Providing an adequate adult-to-child ratio is crucial.  Ensuring that supervisors are not clustered in conversation is another key element.  A recent study to improve interactions on the playground suggested playgrounds be divided into sections by age, with supervision for each section.  Here are their results:

  • It was found that having a structured activity occurring within a section of the playground was related to much higher rates of cooperative play among children and less physical and rough play.
  • For example, having an activity in a particular section of the playground was associated with a three-fold increase in the probability that children would be engaged in cooperative play, while rough-physical play was cut in half and thereby reduced to a more normative level.
  • Further, when adults actively monitored their section of the playground, there was a significant increase in positive social interactions amongst children from different ethnic backgrounds.

As a special education teacher, I am particularly concerned about the safety of EC kids on the playground.  If a district has the resources, adding an additional assistant to watch out for identified kids can be helpful (if that assistant is properly trained).  Special ed teachers need to forewarn playground supervisors about potential social problems (see previous post).  I do not want to tell my kids to get help from an adult who routinely responds, “Go and play.”  I am also concerned that my kids may be perceived as the aggressors, no matter the circumstances.  In my next post, I will elaborate on these issues.