Play and risk management: quality policies support playful practice

Wednesday August 5, 2020

If you are committed to developing quality opportunities for children’s play, then you will need to develop policy and practice guidance that supports that intention. In this post, using examples from practice and case studies, we explore what might be included in a quality Play and Risk Management policy, it's role and functions.

Most if not all decisions adults take in respect of supporting (or constraining) children’s play involve some element of risk management. Whether it be deciding how much freedom children should be allowed, addressing safety concerns in the public realm, designing spaces for play or facilitating play sessions. However, we often meet adults who want to support children’s play but feel constrained by the health & safety policies of their organisation.

We have also come across situations where organisations have a strong play policy, explaining their understanding and commitment to play, only to find that those aims and objectives are somewhat contradicted by a separate health and safety policy.

For this reason, we recommend developing a joint play and risk management policy that provides a comprehensive, coherent and consistent framework for supporting children’s play. That’s what we did for Chester Zoo when they asked us to help them develop their strategic approach to play. There’s more on that particular policy framework at the end of this blog but first, let’s think about the importance of having the right kind of policies in place.

In 2016 we wrote…

“Perhaps the most significant change for childhoods today compared to those of previous generations is the increasing degree to which children are living and therefore playing in environments designed, built and supervised by adults, who may have a tendency to prioritise the interests of other adults over those of children (who are likely to have significantly less power to influence decisions and practices which never-the-less affect their everyday lives). The result of this can be children and their play being marginalised within neighbourhoods and adult run institutions. This is evident where adults place constraints (albeit sometimes with good intentions) on children’s playful behaviour in pursuit of safety or other adult desired outcomes. Given the flexible and uncertain nature of children’s play, this presents a problem because, as well as being a potential source of increasing frustration for children, this approach could actually serve to restrict the benefits of playing.

Research carried out… as part of the play sufficiency process has identified a significant number of examples where children’s freely chosen and personally directed play is being unnecessarily constrained by adults. This is often due the pressure practitioners feel to direct children’s behaviours towards prescribed developmental outcomes, misconceptions around health and safety requirements, or people’s lack of understanding about the potential value of certain play behaviours (particularly those that make adults feel uncomfortable). However because, in these cases, adults are working against children’s innate drive to play they inevitably result in some fairly undesirable situations. This might include restricting children’s opportunities for developing themselves or practitioners having to deal with the challenging consequences of frustrated children.

As a consequence professionals need to be supported to negotiate their own and other people’s concerns associated with allowing children greater freedom. However, these practitioners are also required to work in accordance with the policies and procedures of their organisation and cannot simply be expected to grant children greater permission to play without themselves feeling like they have permission to do so. This highlights the need for policy developments that justify and encourage professionals to adopt a more sensitive approach to children and their play.”

Or to put it another way…

It’s no good just telling adults who work with children that they should take a more balanced approach to risk management, especially if the policies of the organisation they work for say nothing of the sort or even counteract that argument. Organisational policies often promote the importance of safety above and beyond the benefits of play. Statements like ‘safety is paramount’ in an organisational policy suggest that safety is the number one thing employees should be concerned with. It’s therefore unreasonable to expect these practitioners to adopt an approach that does anything other than prioritises children’s safety. That’s not to say that safety isn’t important but unless policies provide a framework for more balanced decision making and support practitioners to also give consideration to the benefits of play, it’s likely that the pursuit of safety will result in unnecessary constraints being imposed on children. This sort of overly cautious approach and the constant fear of litigation it creates also stifles creativity in terms of how adults might provide for children’s play.

Back to what we said in 2016…

“Policies that impact on children should be developed in such a way that they recognise the inevitability of children’s play and support rather than constrain these instinctive forms of behaviour i.e. children’s natural behaviours should have a greater influence on the design of policies than policies have on the behaviour of children.”

In The Land: a risk management case study, we give the example of a risk-benefit framework used by an established and highly successful playwork service as evidence of a child-centred policy in practice. This policy framework has enabled professionals to work in a way that best supports children’s play whilst (simultaneously) discharging their duty of care and maintaining the integrity of their organisation.

Risk-benefit is an approach to risk management that pays attention to the potential benefits of children engaging with uncertainty in their play. These benefits (the good things that can happen) are considered alongside the chance of people being harmed (the bad things that can happen). Decisions are then based on allowing children to experience some risk for themselves whilst also trying to prevent them from being seriously harmed.

Importantly, and in the UK at least, we would argue that it isn’t the law that is getting in the way of more practitioners adopting a risk-benefit approach to their work with children. Rather it is the way in which that law is understood and implemented within organisational policies and procedures. For example, the Health and Safety at Work Act says that risks should be reduced “so far as is reasonably practicable”. It is completely reasonable that where children’s play is concerned it is not practicable (or desirable) to remove all the risks. Furthermore, in 2012 the Health & Safety Executive produced a high-level statement confirming their support for a risk-benefit approach and promoting the importance of risk in children’s play.

Documents such as these and others like Managing Risk in Play Provision provide ample justification for allowing children to engage with uncertainty in their play, yet in our experience, organisational policy documents rarely provide a robust case for practitioners adopting anything other than a highly cautious approach.

The good news is it’s not that difficult to change this situation and through improved policies and professional development, risk-benefit assessments could become common practice when working with or on behalf of children and their play. However, this does require some time and effort by those responsible for managing organisations and those who inspect or regulate these providers.

Chester Zoo’s play and risk management policy

The play and risk management policy we developed for Chester Zoo was designed to apply to everyone who works at the zoo, including paid staff, volunteers and external contractors that the zoo works with. It also aimed to promote greater awareness of the zoo’s position on play amongst the general public and with people visiting the zoo. The policy, therefore, covered a wide range of issues associated with supporting children’s play. It described the zoo’s understanding of play, why play matters (to the zoo and everyone else), how the zoo designs and provides for play, how staff and volunteers facilitate and respond to children’s play and how the zoo will manage the inherent risks involved in children’s play.

In setting out a balanced approach to risk management, the policy provided an initial risk-benefit analysis that took account of the behavioural characteristics of children’s play, their associated benefits and risks. It then went on to provide a framework for making risk-benefit decisions, including:

  • When and how to evidence decisions regarding risk management concerns
  • Factors to be considered when carrying out risk-benefit assessments
  • What might be considered as reasonable hazards and reasonable safety controls
  • The inspection and maintenance of places for play
  • Dynamic risk-benefit assessments by those working directly with children

That last point refers to the ongoing process of risk management that staff and volunteers undertake when supervising playing children. To help inform their day-to-day decisions, and to encourage greater consistency in practice, we developed accompanying guidance in the form of a simple flowchart. Importantly, this wasn’t a set procedure that they were expected to follow but rather a tool to support practitioners in giving greater consideration to their interactions with children and helping them articulate the reasoning behind their responses.

Picture credits:

Thanks to Mick Conway, Genfro Valley adventure playground, The Venture and The Land adventure playground for the photographs used in this blog.

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Ludicology support those interested in play and playfulness to develop evidence based play centred policies and practices through our advice, research and training services. Use this form to get in touch and to let us know what kind of support you require.