Protecting Our Most Valuable Assets
Keeping Child Watch Programs Safe
By Brian Rawlings
One of the liveliest spots of any recreation center, gym or athletic club is the child watch area. The smiles and sounds of children giggling can brighten anyone's day. For the children, child watch can be an enriching experience, providing physical activity, social engagement and emotional well-being while fostering friendships and life skills. For the parent, the child watch program is ideally, a safe, clean environment staffed by trained employees with whom they can entrust their children while they work out. For the recreation facility, the child watch area is a value-add that attracts and retains members, but also is a service that could pose enormous risk to members, employees and the business itself—if risk exposures are not properly addressed and mitigated.
Essential to operating a good child watch program is a commitment to safety, training and risk management.
In trying to improve safety and service, it is key for businesses to hire qualified, knowledgeable and attentive team members. For recreation centers, athletic clubs and gyms that take on the care of children, quality staff is requisite. Hiring staff that has enthusiasm and energy will certainly provide a positive impact to a facility's programming and bottom line, but bringing on staff that has that innate love and passion for working with children is not enough. Owners and operators also need to provide training and define protocols to ensure the children are well protected while in the facility's care.
Staff must engage in required training and undergo regular reviews to keep the training fresh. To ensure a safe child watch area, among other things, facilities need to train staff to be aware of the following:
- Maintain proper ratios. Taking into account the standard child care ages of 6 weeks to 12 years, owners and operators should make sure staff is keeping adequate ratios at all times. If the facility is state licensed, owners and operators should follow the state's guidance. If not, they should consider the following ratios: For children 6 weeks to 18 months, follow a 5:1 ratio; for children 18 months to 3 years, follow an 8:1 ratio; for children 3 to 12 years, follow a 12:1 ratio; and never allow a ratio of 1:1 in a child watch setting.
- Acquire all pertinent information, including details on allergy and medical history, as well as who is authorized to pick up the child, and emergency contact information.
- Post clear sign-in and -out procedures that require information on what time the child was signed in, the parent's location in the building and any special instructions.
- Require waivers and authorizations to be signed on the child's first visit and keep it on file. The waiver should include indemnification and hold-harmless language, as well as authorization to provide medical care.
- Implement an incident reporting and emergency preparedness plan, and train staff regularly on this plan. Plans should offer direction on incidents relating to weather, fire, medical emergency and active shooters. Also, make sure additional staff are folded into these plans, as they are often needed to respond to attend to the younger children.
- Implement incident reporting protocols to ensure that incidents are properly documented via the proper channels and appropriate parties are informed of the event.
In addition to considering these tips, it's also critical to have the right insurance. Owners and operators should be sure to purchase quality insurance only from a trusted partner who knows fitness facilities and their unique risks. Many insurance policies will exclude medical payments for child watch programs or have total exclusions for certain activities. Facility owners and operators must make sure their broker has reviewed their policy's language to ensure they have the right coverage in place that fits their facilities' needs.
By hiring qualified staff, obtaining good insurance, and following the risk management tips above, recreation centers, gyms and athletic clubs can be confident that they are operating a safe and child-friendly facility for their members. Then, owners and operators can go ahead and plan new exciting, engaging classes and install fun features in the child watch area.
Reviewing and implementing some simple best practices can help to assure that those precious smiles and laughs are ever present within a recreation center, gym or club. Combining great programming with the proper safety protocols makes for happy, healthy children, as well as members and employees—keeping the facility fit for years to come.
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