It seems to me that there has been much improvement in
the last few years regarding the acceptance of risk in play
provision and the comments on the website reflect this.
The legal environment has also changed - in no small part
to the efforts of my 3 co-facilitators (amongst others).
However, there is still a problem at the front end, with
those responsible for procuring play space provision being
nervous particularly regarding litigation fears and general
complaints. Maybe a few open questions might open the debate
up about what still needs to be done.
PC. Should play spaces offer more or less risk than
is freely available outside the play space?
DB. I think playgrounds are areas where risk has been more
carefully 'managed'. That is, far more thought has gone
into the level of risk than has in other settings, and generally
the level of risk is lower on playgrounds than in countless
places commonly frequented by children - like streets, railway
stations, river banks etc. This is supported by the statistics
which show playgrounds to be oases of comparative safety.
BS. I'm not sure that thinking in terms of 'more' or 'less'
risk in respect of designated play space or general playable
space is the best way of approaching the general question
of what's an acceptable level of risk in different contexts.
I can't find a way of thinking about this without returning
to the general approach that asks us to justify a particular
judgment-based risk level against a judgment-based view
about the potential benefits. In other words, it's not a
question of being in or out of a playspace, but of assessing
risks in the context of wished-for benefits. I'm not sure
that introducing an additional category - i.e. in or out
of a play space - helps us. It may be a distraction. To
which, I add, 'I think'. I'd welcome comment on this - perhaps
if only to highlight the flaws that I have not seen in my
PC. What relevance do the standards En1176/7 have for
natural play spaces?
DB. I don't think BSEN has much relevance to natural play
areas. I never found it much use for dealing with traditional
climbing frames either. I put this down to the near impossibility
of writing a standard to describe something which is so
complex, and which must consider benefits as well as safety.
BS. My understanding is that the standards only apply to
things designated 'play equipment' and then, most importantly,
the standards are not mandatory. The risk assessment process
has primacy when making judgments about risk. For more on
this, do look at authoritative legal advice - Counsel Opinion
- at www.playlink.org.uk. There is a link from the Home
PC. How do we protect local authority officers from
the fear of finger pointing and witch hunts if things go
DB. By providing them with authoritative documents like
Managing Risk in Play Provision. I handle quite a few play-related
legal cases as an expert witness, usually for the local
authority. Pretty well every case has been assisted by the
production of MRPP in court which ushers in a breath of
fresh air. One of the problems in court cases is that expert
witnesses for the claimant tend to be either from an engineering-type
background or to be ex factory inspectors. For this reason
their risk assessments fail to take account of the benefits
of the activity, a balance which should always be made.
For example, a fireman's pole could not be justified in
a playground because of the associated risk, unless the
benefit were factored in. The same applies to pretty well
everything else on playgrounds, but surprisingly risk assessments
seldom mention benefits at all! This makes me wonder how
decisions about acceptability are being made. But to get
back to the point, providers can help themselves by referring
to key documents like MRPP in their policy statements, and
making it clear that they are making the best judgements
they can about the trade-off between risk of injury and
benefits of play (fun, exercise, learning to play, learning
about risk etc) in providing the play opportunity.
BS. David's comments need to be taken on board. But to
reiterate: providers must, in my view, work within the context
of a formally agreed policy that states clearly the relationship
of risk to play, the benefits that accrue from risk-taking,
and that it is one of the objectives of play provision to
create the conditions that offer children and young people
opportunities to take acceptable levels of risk.
There is no question in my mind that the policy is necessary;
but real gains at every level are more likely if a process
of formulating the policy is undertaken - one based on the
exploration of ideas, not simply 'training'. A process that
involves, for example, Health and Safety Officers, Planners,
Housing, Councillors and so forth. I do now unashamedly
ask you to look at the PLAYLINK web site under 'policy'
for more on this.
From a slightly different tack: it is not helpful for people
committed to play to complain about a blame game, and then
participate in it ourselves - which occurs at least sometimes.
Individual Officers, not least H&S Officers, in many cases
work within a context that is risk-averse and risk-illiterate,
where they have few or no grounds for believing that their
employers will support them in the event that their reasonable
judgment becomes subject to press or parental scrutiny.
Whilst it is the case that some H&S people we have encountered
seem not to be comfortable with the concepts with which
they have to deal, it is equally the case we have had the
good fortune to engage with H&S Officers who have brought
to play and their authorities a clarity about risk, benefits
and objectives that has been of real benefit. To summarise:
we need to create the context where ideas and concepts about
risk, risk and play can be explored and elucidated. Rooted
understanding and value-based commitment are foundational
PC. What should the role of the playground inspector
be in play space provision? Does it need to change?
DB. I think that playground inspectors need to be far more
philosophical about what they are doing. I suspect they
tend to focus on making measurements of equipment and comparisons
with BSEN, which is more about self-protection (litigation
avoidance) than supporting the needs of the child. Even
so, this is only a tiny part of the job and has little to
do with the purpose of play and maybe not much impact on
safety either. The difficult part is getting the balance
between benefit and risk at a level which is in accord with
the aims of the playground. This inter alia requires the
inspector to compare the playground against the aims set
out in the provider's play policy. Failure to do this may
mean that the playground is inspected against the inspector's,
usually undisclosed, personal criteria, rather than that
of the authority. Thus, you may not get what you want.
BS. Once again, David's comments are extremely pertinent.
One extra point: there is variability in the views of Inspectors,
even when hailing from the same organisation. The judgment
you get can sometimes depend on which Inspector turns up
on the day. Providers need to be clear and confident about
their aims and objectives, and put themselves in the position
to challenge judgments with which they disagree. This leads
back to policy and policy making, points made above.
PC. What do people think about the subjectivity of risk
assessments? Can they or should they be standardised?
DB. This is a very difficult area indeed, and I'm struggling
myself to come to some answer. The question applies way
beyond the realm of playgrounds of course. There are many
difficulties and I'm not sure if standardisation is possible
and I wonder if maybe it isn't even desirable. If we standardised
it, that might lock us into some non-ideal world, just as
I believe parts of the BSEN have done. On the other hand,
there are intriguing questions, e.g. if you look at a wobbly,
rustic bridge in a playground its obvious there's a foreseeable
risk and if such existed in a factory or an office it would
be regarded as 'high', but a) we allow the things on playgrounds
and b) the statistics show that the risk of serious (life
endangering) injury is very low. So what looks like a high
risk subjectively, turns out to be a low risk objectively,
no doubt because kids can cope with these things. So should
inspectors be paying more heed to their objective knowledge
or their subjective feelings? This I think also reinforces
the need for playground inspectors to have had training
in child development and not just, say, engineering. But
it's odd, when I get a letter from a solicitor asking if
I would be an expert, it usually starts "We are looking
for an engineer...", which triggers my brain to ask "Why?".
BS. There's a difference between standardising a procedure
and attempting to do the impossible, standardise a judgment.
I'm not sure - that's genuinely 'not sure' - if one procedure
is better than another, but for sure, a 'standardised judgment'
is a contradiction in terms.
PLAYLINK believes that what is required is judgment based
on an 'informed subjectivity'; that is, roughly, judgments
that recognises that there are facts to be considered; that
facts need to be interpreted in the light of values and
the provision's objectives - e.g. what does a broken arm
sustained in a playground 'mean'? How serious is such an
This does not mean that judgment based on informed subjectivity
is either 'random', or a response to which side of the bed
I got out of that morning. It is bringing to bear a quality
of mind to the particular question in hand. It is, in my
view, a dangerous illusion to believe that judgments about
risk levels is a matter of objectivity; or that objectivity
is the 'gold standard' that we seek, but is somehow elusive.
It is in fact the search for fool's gold. We are required
only to make reasoned and reasonable judgments - that they
may be proved wrong on occasion, is another matter.