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Safe Play Basics

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 sections will outline the key steps to create a safe play area.

Choose Site

Look for a location that is:
  • away from the majority of farm activity (traffic, animals, equipment, hazardous particles 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
  • flat
  • free from obstacles (roots, overhead electrical wires, etc.)
  • free from open water (pond, water tank, etc.)
  • within view and earshot of a responsible adult (need varies by child’s age)

Plan and Design With Your Child in Mind

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
Additional considerations:
  • 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

Surround With a Fence

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 1/2 inches to avoid head entrapment

Use Protective Ground Cover

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
    • sand
    • 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)

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.

Add Play Activities

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.

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 1/2inches or greater than 9 inches
  • without bolt ends, edges, or other protrusions extending beyond 1/16inch 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

Supervise to Prevent Injuries

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 9inches
  • 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 1/2 inches or more than 9 inches
  • measure S hook openings, making sure they are no larger than 1/16inch (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 then2 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


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. Also available is a condensed smaller mini-edition see Creating Safe Play Areas on Farms 2010 Mini-Edition in English or Spanish.

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.

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: