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Not child’s play

By Fiona McWilliam
Sorting out which aspects of play are covered by regulation and which are not is tricky – but essential if designers are to work to their full capability.

Despite public misconceptions, there are no mandatory regulations in the UK specific to play and the provision of play space. ‘While playgrounds and parks come under the Health & Safety at Work Act,’ says Bernard Spiegal, world-renowned play expert and principal of PLAYLINK, the UK-based independent play and ‘informal leisure’ consultancy, ‘there is no legislation specific to play’.

There are, however, non-mandatory industry standards for play equipment which have, according to Spiegal, ‘been allowed to expand into areas beyond their scope of competence’, that is, into the wider territory of play space/landscapes.

A vociferous campaigner at the forefront of promoting what he calls ‘the urgent need to counter risk aversion and a ‘play safe culture’, Spiegal is calling for a better distinction between ‘those aspects of playground equipment standards that legitimately fall within the scope of technical-cum-engineering expertise, and those that do not’.

Currently, he says, standards and the process of standard-making mark no such distinction: ‘Instead two distinct territories, the one concerned with objective, technical information and assessment, the other, with subjective, value-based judgments, are treated as one unified field of knowledge and decision-making.’ And this, he asserts, has had ‘a deadening effect’ on the decision-making capacity of play providers, undermining their confidence and ability to make informed value-based judgments.

All too often, Spiegal says, a client will have ‘an unacknowledged, almost subconscious script treating standards as mandatory’. While this may be in some way understandable, he adds, given the way they are promoted by the play equipment industry, ‘it creates an obvious tension with designers and play providers who see that in their current form, such standards are unhelpfully restrictive’.

Linked to standards are play equipment inspectors, Spiegal says, and most of these are only formally qualified to make judgements against standards. Natural and non-standard features such as tree trunks and tree swings should instead be assessed via a risk-benefit assessment process, he argues. ‘This offers the opportunity to find these and similar features to be of an “acceptable level of risk” notwithstanding that they fit no standard.’

In the structure of conventional risk assessment and play, Speigal explains, there is no mention of benefits which he describes as ‘madness’, given the obvious and well-documented benefits of playing freely out of doors to both children and teenagers. ‘Risk-benefit assessment has the potential to open up possibilities for designers and play providers generally, and most of all for children and teenagers to play.’

The charity Play England, (‘which aims for all children and young people in England to have regular access and opportunity for free, inclusive, local play provision and play space’) acknowledges that ‘public play space currently relies primarily on the design and installation of manufactured play equipment’.

While much of this is high quality in terms of play value, it states, ‘a lot of it is not and seems to be based on a narrow view of how children play’, with too much play equipment designed with a primary focus on safety, and ‘offering little opportunity for play that offers risk and challenge’. Equally, it adds, avoiding wear and tear often appears to be a bigger priority than user enjoyment.

Danish children’s advocate and designer of award-winning natural play spaces, Helle Nebelong, has made the much-quoted point that standardised play areas ‘brimful of brashly coloured prefabricated equipment’ cannot only be boring for children, they can actually also be dangerous: ‘When the distance between ladder rungs is the same,’ she says, ‘the child has no need to concentrate’.

Like Spiegal, a growing band of play space designers, welcome the risk-benefit assessment approach to play provision, and the fact that it ‘considers the benefits first, rather than the risks and hazards’. (The fact that children might fall over and hurt themselves, is itself a benefit, says Spiegal, as it is something from which they will learn).

It’s an approach that the HSE and the independent Play Safety Forum endorsed in their 2012 high-level statement Children’s play and leisure: promoting a balanced approach.

The statement caused something of a stir in a popular press obsessed with health-and-safety-madness articles, and was widely welcomed by many of those involved in play provision. It prompted leading play expert and author Tim Gill to post a blog entry entitled ‘It’s health and safety gone sane’.

The HSE / Play Safety Forum statement starts with ‘a thumbs-up for adventurous, challenging play,’ notes Gill. ‘It acknowledges that play allows children and young people to explore and understand their abilities; helps them to learn and develop; and exposes them to the realities of the world in which they will live, which is a world not free from risk but rather one where risk is ever present.’

It recognises too that children will often be exposed to play environments which, while well-managed, carry a degree of risk and sometimes potential danger, and encourages schools, councils and others to ‘deal with risk responsibly, sensibly and proportionately’.

Welcomed too by those involved in play provision, Play England’s 2008 Design for Play: a guide to creating successful play spaces, was published jointly with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with the support of CABE Space and the National Lottery, ‘to help those charged with investing in play provision to aim high, by taking a step back from the sometimes limiting stereotype of a public playground’.

The guide sets out to be aspirational, ‘aiming to inspire, not to prescribe’. Its premise is that ‘like any other part of the public realm intended to be well used, well loved and well maintained, play space needs a coherent concept and a clear design’.

The principles it recommends to inform this design ‘are based on well-researched findings about what constitutes a good play environment, because this research tells us that children like to play throughout whatever domain is accessible to them... that play space should be integrated sensitively into the wider design of the public realm’.

New editions of this publication, and another Play England key guidance document: Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation guide, which promotes the risk-benefit approach to play provision, will be published shortly, the latter incorporating the joint HSE/Play Safety Forum high level statement.

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