Playgrounds face new transatlantic threat

Recent proposals by the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) have sent shock waves around the world of children’s play. ASTM is one of the world’s largest international standards developing organizations. The ASTM Committee which deals with playground surfacing has recently proposed that the safety requirements for playground surfacing should be made more stringent. On the face of it, this sounds a good move. But is it, and who would benefit most? Many individuals and organisations have expressed their deep concern to ASTM. See the attached article OBSERVATIONS ON IAS for further insight.

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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

Children and young people’s play

I first became involved professionally in children and young people’s play provision back in 1986 when working for the Scientific Branch of the Greater London Council. It happened by accident when some colleagues left and I was asked to absorb their activities into my own. I recall saying, ‘This is not going to take long – it’s a three month job.’ How wrong can you be?! Twenty five years later the topic rolls on and interest, if anything, is at an even higher pitch than ever.

Back in the 80s and 90s most of the questions on play were about safety – ‘How can I make my playground safe?’ – being the typical question, and many people believed the answer somehow lay in impact absorbing surfaces for playgrounds. The publication, in 1989, of ‘A holistic approach to accident and injury prevention in children’s playgrounds’ caused something of a stir since it contradicted the then conventional wisdom that rubber surfaces would prevent playground injuries.

Having finally persuaded at least some people that this was both the wrong question and the wrong solution, and having been joined by others who have independently come to the same realisation, the new question of the 2010s is along the lines of: ‘How can I make my playground into a good experiential opportunity for children and young people?’ At least the question is becoming more wholesome, although the safety conundrum lingers on.

In 2002 I received a contract from the Health and Safety Executive to review what was actually known about the safety of playgrounds in terms of accident statistics, and to interpret this in terms of general UK safety policy. The output of this was published by the HSE and can be found on its website at from which it may be downloaded. At about this time, and hopefully assisted by the HSE report, the Play Safety Forum (PSF), to whom I am one of several advisers, published the first edition of its ground-breaking policy statement entitled ‘Managing risk in play provision – position statement’. In contrast to the messages of the previous decades which were largely about making playgrounds safe, the PSF’s position was starkly different. Children, it said, needed and wanted exposure to risk.

Two further publications by Play England and the government in 2008 took this a step further. These were ‘Managing risk in play provision – implementation guide,’ and ‘Design for play.’ These documents contained singularly important messages. The most important perhaps being:

  • risk assessment in the play sector should be replaced by risk benefit assessment (RBA)
  • that play spaces need natural features as well as manufactured equipment
  • that good play space is achieved not through a process of ‘design, install and forget,’ but rather one of ‘design, install, monitor and adjust’

However, although the PSF fully endorsed RBA in these publications and had, at the time, the support of the HSE, it appeared sometime later that HSE was less confident of this concept and some personnel appeared opposed. After a somewhat protracted deliberation between the PSF and the HSE during 2011-12, partly at the instigation of Lord Young who had said that this negotiation over risk-benefit should take place (, the HSE in due course published on its website a high level statement on risk in play, and risk benefit assessment specifically, on 3 September 2012 ( The HSE statement includes the following paragraph:

“To help with controlling risks sensibly and proportionately, the play sector has produced the publication Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide which provides guidance on managing the risks in play. The approach in this guidance is that risks and benefits are considered alongside each other in a risk-benefit assessment. This includes an assessment of the risks which, while taking into account the benefits of the activity, ensures that any precautions are practicable and proportionate and reflect the level of risk. HSE supports this guidance, as a sensible approach to risk management.” (HSE, 2012)

Prima facie, it would appear that peace has broken out, although the road may yet have further twists.