The risk of injury in the schoolyard increases dramatically during the winter months when snow, ice and frost create hazardous conditions. Winter weather can make playground surfaces and outdoor play equipment very slippery and cause damage which needs to be quickly repaired. At the same time, children need to learn to behave and dress appropriately for the weather conditions they encounter. In this post, we’ll look at some of the ways to improve safety in the winter playground.
Watch out for slippery surfaces
Almost all playground surfaces are at risk from ice in one way or another. This even includes some loose-fill surfaces, like wood mulch and loose gravel which can create hard, solid surfaces when insufficient drainage causes them to freeze over. A more effective and long-term solution would be to use rubber mulch which cannot freeze. However, effective drainage is essential for all surfaces to reduce the potential for freezing, so if water isn’t draining away adequately, you may need a more detailed inspection to discover the cause so that it can be rectified.
Ice isn’t just caused by freezing water, it can also be caused by compacted snow. In the playground, this can be particularly hazardous as the more children walk on snow, the icier and more slippery it becomes – especially when the more dare-devil children start turning it into a slide. The best remedy to stop snow being turned into ice is to be proactive and grit the surfaces whenever snow is forecast. This will prevent snow from settling so it cannot be compacted. However, if ice has formed, the safest solution is to stop the surface being used until the ice has melted away. Equipment should also be tested for ice, especially climbing equipment which may need to be taken out of use in icy conditions.
One final thing you should remember is that when water turns to ice, it expands. When this happens between two surfaces, the force the expansion exerts can cause damage or erosion. The tiny gaps in asphalt and tarmac surfaces are particularly vulnerable to this form of erosion and this is why you might see potholes and loose patches of gravel after the thaw. Not only will these become worse with heavy use; they are also potential trip hazards and should be repaired quickly in order to reduce risk and cost. Newer forms of hard surfaces, like resin bound gravel, use resin as protection against freeze-thaw erosion and are therefore safer and more weather-resistant.
Get rid of snow
Although snow feels soft, it should never be considered as an adequate surface to leave under elevated play equipment like climbing frames as its slipperiness increases the risk of injury to those who land on it. Similarly, pupils are more likely to bump into equipment with snow around it or fall off structures that have snow on them. If feasible, snow should be brushed off all equipment and shovelled away from the playground surface underneath. Even once this has happened, the equipment should still be inspected to ensure it is safe enough to use, as residual water can still be a slip hazard. Remember to check things like the ladder rungs, handrails, hanging bars, balance beams, platforms, slides, stepping beams and landing areas. This is particularly important on balancing and climbing equipment where there are no additional handrails.
Managing the children
Pupils can be a hazard to themselves in wintery conditions and it is important that adequate supervision is on-hand at all times, especially around busy areas and elevated apparatus. While snowballing is permitted in some schools, this should never be the case if snow has frozen and become dangerously hard and never near windows (broken glass is almost impossible to find in snow) or near those playing on climbing equipment. Pupils should also be discouraged from running on snow as it not only increases the risk of falling, there are also more chances for collisions to occur.
While pupils should be suitably attired for outdoor play during the poor winter weather, some items of clothing can increase the risk of injury when children are playing on certain types of equipment. Gloves, for example, prevent children from safely gripping jungle bars or traversing walls, while dangling scarves and drawstrings can get caught up in some apparatus.
Finally, to prevent hazards being taken from the playground to the school building, ensure there are mats at the entrances for children to wipe their feet. Wet corridors and staircases can also be very slippery.
As you can see, winter weather can present a number of potential hazards to children in the playground. Hopefully, the suggestions made here will help you ensure your pupils stay safe.
If you are looking for safer surfaces for your outdoor play areas, check out our playground surfacing page.