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Online Discussion Forum on Creating Better Places for Play

We have now reached the conclusion of the Places for Play discussion forum. Contributions that were posted on the discussion forum are still available to view, but the forum is now closed to new additions.

Taken together, the Places of Woe: Places of Possibility online exhibition, and the Places for Play Discussion Forum, have reached a wide audience with over 150,000 pages downloaded since the launch in early November.

We have also received reports that we are achieving - to some extent at least - our purpose which is to:

  • raise questions about what constitutes a good place for play
  • offer a sense of what we think makes a good place for play
  • demonstrate that this is not a matter of pipe dreams, but a reality on the ground where a different way of thinking is taking hold.

The Free Play Network and PLAYLINK are working in complementary ways to support change on the ground. As are many of visitors to the web site and contributors to the discussion forum. But there is much more to be done.

We would like to thank our team of facilitators for contributing so much of their time and expertise to this project:

The Discussion Forum

The questions and comments posted to the discussion forum covered a wide range of relevant issues. They include:

  • consultation
  • vandalism
  • maintenance
  • youth shelters
  • disability access
  • the value, or otherwise, of fixed equipment playgrounds
  • a really useful reference to a book published 15 years ago - thanks here to Alan Sutton - that articulated a key idea (more on this below)
  • and, please, where can we get some money?

From our perspective, some points can be made:

1. Consultation

Can be part of the problem and an obstacle to creating the sort of places for play shown in the 'Possibility' section of the online exhibition.

We need to create the conditions that allow people - children, young people, adults - to become informed decision-makers. To achieve this, engagement must embrace: showing, exploring, challenging, learning, and arguing. It is about presenting a point of view, not simply collecting views. It is certainly not about asking people simply what they want, or offering a choice from the catalogues of equipment manufacturers.

Our experience has been that eyes are opened and minds are changed when engagement is approached as part of a learning process. This also has a bearing on how Members can come to appreciate just what is possible.

2. Fixed equipment or something else?

Framing the question this way is starting in the wrong place and potentially heading in the wrong direction. The aim is to address the environment as a whole - if a playground, then the site and its wider context - and to start with play design principles. These will articulate, for example:

  • the central importance of landscaping
  • ensuring that access to the elements is part of the 'offer'
  • the need to design-in opportunities for users to change and manipulate the environment
  • understanding play space as social space - not simply for 'letting off steam', but also for quiet sociability and privacy.

It is true that we believe that approached in this way much equipment becomes simply redundant. But not all equipment. In any case, what do we mean by equipment? Doesn't the Darnley Park play space have equipment?

3. Liability, negligence, fear of litigation.

A major inhibitor to creating good play spaces is the development of defensive practice that starts from the position that the first job of play providers is to reduce the possibility of negligence claims. This is rarely overtly acknowledged in the terms given here. Where such a practice - it is perhaps an expression of a particular culture - has taken hold, providing for play becomes the 'displaced objective'. The rhetoric of providing play opportunities then masks a self-imposed, self-limiting, 'safety-first', watch-my-back practice.

To a significant degree, concerns about negligence claims are based on misconceptions. There is more on this, including authoritative legal opinion, on the PLAYLINK webpages on Negligence, play and risk - legal opinion

4. Maintenance and vandalism.

There is almost certainly a relationship between vandalism and maintenance levels. This is not to argue for a simple, straight line correlation between low maintenance and high vandalism levels, but simply to notice that adequate maintenance is one expression of the value we attach to our public places; low maintenance signifying, perhaps, a lack of respect for what we claim to value.

In the discussion forum, the vexed issue of vandalism inevitably came to the fore. But there's a question here, as there is for all such 'catch-all' categories: just what is the range of behaviour, and its consequences, that the term 'vandalism' attempts to capture? It's not unlike that other catch-all, 'anti-social behaviour': what is the range of behaviour embraced by the term?

Vandalism and anti-social behaviour are realities, of course. And prompt fear and unease in that other catch-all - 'communities'. Nothing is gained, however, either in terms of analysis or potential remedy, by using with unthinking elasticity terms that call out for some precision and a sense of the context within which they are used.

A forthcoming PLAYLINK Procurement Survey finds that some 70% of respondents thought their maintenance budgets inadequate. Please join our contact lists if you want notification of publication.

Bernard Spiegal
email: info at playlink.org.uk
19 December 2006

View the Discussion Forum.


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