Part 3_Risk and Play: examples from policy and practice

Wednesday April 27, 2022

In the final blog of our risky play series, we want to share some examples of people navigating the issues around risk management to create time and space for play. All these examples extend from a more contemporary appreciation of children and play and a rights-based approach to policy and practice.

Policy for play and risk management

The examples in this Blog illustrate a different way of thinking about children and their play and the importance of adopting a balanced and reasonable approach to risk management.

People are shifting from a position where safety was considered as paramount, a position that encouraged a risk-averse approach and inferred the elimination of risk, to one of risk reduction, where safety is considered alongside other important aspects and where risk and benefits are managed using health and safety to enable opportunity, working with and on behalf of children and the playful disposition.

In the UK, the Play Safety Forum’s position statement on managing risk in play provision (2002 and updated in 2021) has been instrumental in supporting this shift, as has their publication Managing risk in play provision (2008) which set out a risk-benefit approach.

These two documents articulated a different way of thinking that was absent at the time, challenging the dominant paradigm and giving practitioners permission to work differently.

Five years later, the HSE, the governing body for health and safety practices in the UK, published their high-level statement promoting a balanced approach to risk management in children’s play and leisure, further empowering providers and informing public perception.

Together, this laid the foundations for a local authority like Wrexham to produce a play and risk management policy, setting out a risk-benefit approach that acts as a supportive platform for service delivery.

Redressing spatial justice in the public realm 

Many examples now exist internationally that show significant shifts from a position where children and their play were segregated off from the rest of society, to one that is working to include children and their playful disposition.

Examples where municipalities are shifting from a singular response to children’s play in the form of dedicated manufactured fixed equipment playgrounds, to an approach that combines these with infrastructure development in the public realm that recognises children as equal rights holders and where spaces reflect the shared needs of all citizens.

A shift from traditional manufactured fixed equipment playgrounds to spaces fit for play, that include nature and landscaping, and that have resources that provide for flexible use of the space and things in it.

And a renewed recognition that standards are guidance, good guidance, but are not straightjackets that dictate what a place for play must be and that risk-benefit assessment is always the primary form of risk management.

And perhaps most importantly, a shift from tokenistic consultation about which pieces of equipment children would prefer from which manufacturer, to real research with children that explores how they like to play, with what, who and where and uses information gathered to create design briefs that meet need.

Here are some good examples that we have come across in our work.

OPAL schools 

OPAL is just one, but one very good example, of a school play intervention programme that is helping schools shift from being places where all but the most dominant of locomotor players get to use the barren tarmac landscape, to places that become some of the best, most varied and interesting places for all children to play.

Where spaces often dominated by boys’ sports become places where all play can find a space and everyone’s play is of equal importance.

Where schools are supported to develop their professional competence in working with playing children and become confident in applying risk-benefit approaches.

And, importantly, where children are given opportunities to have agency and control over a part of their school day and make real choices and decisions about issues that affect them as a part of their playtimes.

Projects like this almost always have substantial physical and mental health and wellbeing benefits for children, as well as the rest of the school community.

Chester Zoo  

Perhaps a more recent change here in the UK is the extent to which organisations outside of those traditionally involved and interested in children’s play have become so.

Arts and cultural institutions like markets, museums, stately homes, country parks and zoos are recognising that play is important to children and, as such, their families and is therefore an important feature of the user experience.

Oragnisations such as Chester Zoo, which has commissioned research into children’s play patterns, considering the way children play and move through the zoo looking at children and the family’s needs and wants and used evidence from the research to design not only new play spaces, but designed the journey around the zoo to take children’s playful disposition into consideration.

Commissioning the development of play and risk management policies and guidance to ensure they meet children’s play needs and that their staff are equipped to work with these uncertainties as and when they arise in children’s play.

Making the majority of space playable so that places where play is discouraged become more obvious.

Ty Pawb people’s market and community art space 

An arts gallery, cultural hub and marketplace is disturbing established practices in these sorts of spaces through creatively disordering space, incorporating playful cues to signpost and signify ‘this is a place where children and their play are welcome’.

Curating an exhibition of Playwork and the Adventure playground in which a temporary adventure playground was built from reclaimed recycled materials in celebration of play and adventure, where children could create opportunities for uncertainty supported by robust play and risk management policy and practice.

Where the exhibition had 10,000 visitors and the only injury was the caretaker spraining their ankle.

The Land adventure playground

We are seeing examples of organisations here in the UK called Adventure Playgrounds, whose core responsibility is to create optimal conditions for children’s play, once again truly enabled to work to the full extent of their remit.

A sector once quite significantly constrained due to an overzealous application of safety controls that, because of policy and practice developments over the last 20 years, are now fully equipped to support children in the creation of opportunities that incorporate a good degree of risk taking, from using tools in the process of construction play, to making self-built play equipment.

All possible because they are implementing robust risk management practices, underpinned by strong policy frameworks and supported by national guidance and policy position statements from the regulatory body.

Playing in quarantine 

As the pandemic has revealed, the world is an uncertain place. There will be times when we need to protect children from risks beyond their control, but we also need to recognise the costs of children being unable to experience and cope with uncertainty for themselves.

The chaos of wars, poverty and disasters may make it all but impossible for children to play. Exposure to mild stress of the kind that children experience when they put themselves in situations of uncertainty can be highly beneficial, but toxic stress caused by acute fear can be equally damaging. In these situations, secure and protected spaces are essential in which children can feel safe enough and therefore relaxed enough to play and engage with a degree of uncertainty that is within their control.

Outside of these crises, we should be doing all that we can to ensure children have access to sufficient opportunities for play throughout all aspects of their lives. This must include children having freedom to roam and access a multitude of opportunities for play close to home, as well dramatically improving opportunities for play in schools. In the UK, such an approach might have better equipped us to cope with the pandemic, meaning more children could get out and find a space to play and continue to have positive play experiences within the confines of school.

Improving conditions for play supports children to survive and thrive within the inevitably uncertain world in which we all live.


Read the first two blogs in this series here:

Take a risk on play

Risk and Play: a balanced approach

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