‘The Land’ is an open access, staffed adventure playground in Plas Madoc, North East Wales. In recent years this setting has received a lot of attention for what is seen by many as a radical approach to providing for play. This is a playground mostly made up of junk materials and temporary structures built by staff and children. Here children are supported to have adventurous play experiences, including using tools, making fires, climbing up and jumping off structures alongside other less risky (but no less important) play behaviours.
The setting is managed by AVOW (Association of Voluntary Organisations Wrexham) but there are distinct policies which apply to the playground and the playworkers who run it. We helped the AVOW play team develop their risk management policy prior to the playground opening in February 2012. This case study explores how that policy supports the organisation to provide for play in a way that values and enables children to engage with risk as an essential part of their play.
Challenging the ‘cotton-wool’ culture
When developing policies, it is important to recognise that what happens in any type of provision for children is affected by the surrounding community in which the provision is based and by other issues in wider society. This is particularly true when it comes to risk management.
It is now fairly well recognised that in the UK and much of North America (at least) a risk-averse culture has developed (Gill, 2007; Gardner, 2008), where risk is usually seen as a bad thing but also something that can be controlled. Alongside this is a view of children as vulnerable and incapable. As a consequence, children are (more often than not) seen as being in need of adult protection and direction. This, in turn, results in an approach to risk management which attempts to remove all hazards or failing that remove children from those hazards. A situation which is often referred to as a ‘cotton-wool culture’, yet it is within this very same culture that The Land exists.
The risk management policy we worked to develop with the staff, and now adopted by AVOW and implemented by the playworkers challenges this over-protective approach to children and their childhoods. Building on the work of Managing Risk in Play Provision (Ball et al, 2008), the policy sets out a risk-benefit approach. This approach aims to balance the benefits of children engaging with risk in their play together with the need to protect them from serious physical and emotional harm.
An organisational framework that supports risk-benefit decisions
Drawing on research into children’s play, the risk management policy explains the importance of children experiencing uncertainty and recognises children’s developing skills for coping with risk (Lester and Russell, 2008). It’s well documented that children’s engagement with risk, uncertainty, flexibility and variability in play has links with a whole range of benefits. In particular, these forms of play are important to stress response and emotional regulation systems. Equally the absence of these forms of play from children’s ‘play diet’ reduces children’s opportunity to express and experience the full range of emotions and can leave children being overly cautious to new experiences and afraid to try new things. It is important children have a wide and varied ‘play diet’ so they can enjoy their childhood to the fullest, it’s also important that they take those positive experiences into their adolescence and adulthood.
From this position, the policy describes how the organisation will work to make sure that some uncertainty remains in the play space, whilst at the same time meeting its moral and legal duties to protect children from serious harm (Ball et al, 2008). The policy cannot describe exactly how the playworkers can create a space in which this balance is so consistently applied or, for that matter experienced. It does, however, provide staff with clear principled guidance that gives them the confidence they need to facilitate the space as they would choose.
The risk management policy sets out a framework that incorporates two types of risk-benefit assessments. Paper-based or written risk-benefit assessments enable staff to plan their approach to providing for play, particularly where ‘prickly’ issues are concerned (i.e. those that give the staff or other members of the public cause for concern).
These written risk-benefit assessments enable the team to produce a full narrative that plots out their all-important rationale, or (in the words of UK Health and Safety Law) the team’s ‘reasonable and practicable approach’ to facilitating the best quality opportunities they feel they can provide (after all, that’s what all this stuff is about, right!). However, children playing need more than just paper-based assessments and so do playworkers hoping to support playing children.
Dynamic risk-benefit assessment refers to the ongoing process of risk management that playworkers use when working directly with playing children. This continuous process of weighing up risks and benefits and deciding if and when to intervene is an all-important aspect of working with play. Play is by definition a flexible and variable activity that seeks to generate uncertainty. It would be both impractical and undesirable to expect adults to predict and document all eventualities that might emerge when children play. Play is a dynamic behavioural disposition and as such requires a dynamic response from those supporting it.
These two methods of risk management are then supported by reflective practice, that ensures playworkers review what they have done to help inform what they would do next time. This ongoing process supports staff to develop their knowledge, experience and expertise in providing children with a space that is both welcoming and challenging. It also helps them communicate their approach to each other and the outside world (Palmer, 2003), ensuring the playworkers are able to reason why their approach is reason-able.
A rich play environment
As illustrated by the photographs included here, this space provides a rich play environment, incorporating a varied landscape and a wide range of materials. Similar to the first post-war ‘junk’ playgrounds created on bombed out sites (Norman, 2003) there are few permanent structures, instead staff and children use the endless supply of ‘loose parts’ to create and adapt their own spaces for play. However, what is also obvious is the ever-present uncertainty and therefore risk. Few people would walk into this space and think it is completely safe and that matters because children will take more care if they think they need to. Within this space, like many staffed adventure playgrounds, children (as far as reasonable) have the freedom to take responsibility for their own well-being.
While children are playing, the playworkers carefully manage risk. Paying attention to what’s going on (even if that’s from a distance) and getting involved as and when needed. Getting to know individual children and their developing skills and experience, providing as much support as necessary. Removing hazards that offer little benefit (e.g. nails sticking out of wood) and continuously changing the environment (sometimes only in small ways) to open up possibilities for playing.
The perimeter fence provides a space in which staff can leave stuff out for children to come across and then allow children to create a space that meets their own play interests, without being limited by the actions of other less play friendly adults. Perhaps the only downside of this setting is that the fence needs to exist at all and that a space such as this, so full of possibilities, cannot (yet) be tolerated as part of the wider public realm.
Play-centred policy and practice
For children and staff at The Land, uncertainty (and therefore risk) is always present. How the space will look tomorrow, how resources will be used, how individuals will act and what will happen cannot be known (and therein lie the possibilities). However, what does appear to be consistent are the conditions under which the playworkers work and therefore how the space ‘feels’ and the permission it offers for those who use it to play. This is not because the playworkers or the organisation are particularly rebellious. The risk management policy recognises the potentially risk-averse nature of wider society, the legal responsibilities of the setting and role of the staff in protecting children from serious injury or harmful stress (Ball et al, 2008). What makes the difference is that, whilst working within these parameters, the policy has been developed with a primary focus on supporting children’s play and enabling playworkers to do the same.
Subsequently, although the setting like any staffed play provision represents an adult facilitated space, it does like many playwork settings think about and work with children in a way that seems different to other types of provision for children. Here is a place where playworkers can work in line with the Playwork Principles (Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group, 2005) choosing an approach that extends rather than limits children’s play, whilst at the same time carrying out their duty of care to those using it (Ball et al, 2008). This careful balance might best be represented by the sign just inside the entrance to the site depicting a wave in recognition of what Arthur Battram (1999) referred to as the ‘edge of chaos’. The setting is certainly not ordered and predictable (read boring for children) but neither is it overly dangerous or stressful for children, instead it operates between these two extremes and maybe is just ‘safe enough’ (Play Wales, 2009).
Further information and developments
This risk management policy and the decision-making framework it supports was originally developed through conversations between a group of experienced and knowledgeable playworkers working in North East Wales around 2010. This included staff working for Wrexham Council and Play Wales, many of whom also had years of experience from working on adventure playgrounds. Work by others in the UK playwork sector also had a major influence on the development of the policy, most notably the publication of Play for a Change and Managing Risk in Play Provision.
Since being developed elements of this risk-benefit framework have been recognised as good practice nationally. The policy was used to form the basis of a model risk-benefit policy included in the Welsh Government’s guidance for local authorities in meeting the Welsh Play Sufficiency Duty. The dynamic risk-benefit assessment flowchart is also currently being used by staff in a range of settings where children play across the UK.
This same policy has supported Wrexham Council to address a number of situations where people raised concerns including: children climbing on steep banks, the use of sand in public spaces, tarmac being allowed to remain in a play space for very young children, the provision of storage boxes for loose parts in public spaces, the use of shipping containers as bases for playwork provision and, most recently, the creation of a play space in the main gallery at Ty Pawb.
The AVOW play team themselves have gone on to produce a range of detailed risk-benefit assessments that address particular risk management concerns, for example: fires, the use of loose parts, play fighting and children’s use of language. Dave Bullough, deputy manager at The Land, also co-authored the Play Wales publication ‘Dynamic Risk Management of Common but Hazardous Play Behaviours’ which promotes a playwork approach to managing play behaviours that adults often find challenging.
Thanks to The Land adventure playground for the photographs used in this blog.
Ball, D., Gill, T. and Spiegal, B. (2008) Managing Risk in Play Provision: implementation guide. London: Play England.
Battram, A. (1999) Navigating Complexity: the Essential Guide to Complexity Theory in Business and Management, London: Spiro Press.
Gardner, D. (2008) Risk – The Science and Politics of Fear, London: Virgin Books Ltd
Gill, T. (2007) No Fear – growing up in a risk averse society, London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008) Play for a Change: Play, policy and practice – a review of contemporary perspectives, London: NCB
Norman, N. (2003) An architecture of play: a survey of London’s adventure playgrounds, London: Four Corners Books
Palmer, S. (2003) Playwork as reflective practice. In Brown, F (ed). Playwork. Theory and Practice. Buckingham: Open University Press
Play Wales (2009) Why make time for play? – support for play providers to advocate for staffed play provision, Cardiff: Play Wales
Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group (2005) Playwork Principles, Cardiff: Play Wales