Thoughts on European playground safety standards

With co-authors Bernard Spiegal, Tim Gill and Harry Harbottle, a new 2014 publication has been produced which takes a critical look at the impact of European play equipment safety standards upon play provision in the UK.

Abstract: “The provision of stimulating and engaging play space for children and young people is increasingly recognized as an important societal goal, not the least because it provides the young with opportunities to develop and gain experience in experimenting with risk. Research in several disciplines now suggests that achievement of this goal has however been impeded in recent decades, and reasons commonly cited have included fear of injury and avoidance of litigation. International standards on play equipment have also been promulgated and justified in terms of securing young people’s “safety,” most usually narrowly defined as injury reduction. There appears to be a widespread presumption that measures aimed at injury prevention are necessarily beneficial overall for young people’s welfare. In this article, we subject European standards for play equipment and surfacing to scrutiny. In particular, we examine underlying motives, consistency of purpose, use of evidence, philosophical leanings, scope, practicalities of application, systems of management, and legal ramifications. From this, we identify a number of fundamental issues that suggest that as a consequence of compartmentalized thinking and misunderstandings, these standards have invaded areas of decision making beyond their legitimate territory. The consequence of this is that play provision is skewed away from what are properly play provision objectives. In such circumstances, local decision makers are often disempowered, and their ability to provide optimal play spaces thereby circumscribed.”

Nightmare In The Park
Nightmare In The Park

What this means, simply put, is that Standards on play safety have colonised areas of decision making which should be the domain of local play providers who know what their local communities need and want. It is fine for Standards to prescribe technical issues like the strength of supporting beams and the like, but things like maximum heights should reflect user capabilities and needs. Teenagers, for example, need more challenge than toddlers, yet Standards appear to focus on the needs of pre-teens for whom some safety advocates wish to restrict maximum fall heights to less than 1.5 to 2 metres. Secondly, it will be apparent that many playgrounds have come to resemble factory environments laden as they are with their metal stairways, evenly-spaced steps, handrails and crash barriers, and rubber surfaces (for further information on playground surfacing see D. J. Ball, ‘ Policy issues and risk-benefit trade-offs of ‘Safer Surfacing’ for children’s playgrounds, Accident Analysis & Prevention 2004, 35(4), 417-424).

Examination of the illustrations in ‘Managing risk in play provision’ (second edition, 2013) shows an alternative, much more naturalistic form of play which is more stimulating and child-friendly. The following pictures give an idea of the sort of possibilities which exist. These are, of course, obviously not risk-free, which may be another reason why standards setters, who tend to believe in injury risk minimisation, would shy away from them.

Play and nature…

Play and nature Play and nature Play and nature