Category Archives: Play England

Are Playground Injuries Really Where We’re Hurting Most?

Last week Canada’s national public broadcaster, CBC, aired an item on playground injuries. The lead pretty much summed it all up, a numbers story that fell short on broader context.

“More than 28,000 children are injured every year on playgrounds across Canada, and the rate of hospitalizations has gone up by eight per cent between 2007 and 2012, CBC News has learned.”

CBC Playground Injuries copy

One thing is sure, no one wants to see a child injured. I live in Halifax, Canada a city with more than 300 playgrounds. My kids and I have played at about 50. They’re well maintained, mostly of the predictable off the shelf variety that address safety concerns and are light on excitement. In the last few years, I don’t recall any media reports about serious injuries.

Now I’m sure we can make playgrounds safer. How about thick foam landing mats as ground covering like those that welcome pole vaulters as they fall earthward, or maybe getting kids suited up in protective gear? While I don’t want to make light of safety concerns, overzealousness on the safety scale reduces the ability of kids to experience and assess risk on their own. For a great resource on risk and play, read Tim Gill’s No Fear – Growing up in a risk averse society (free download).

I was disappointed in the CBC story and felt shortchanged. How many injuries occurr in homes, automobiles, skater parks? Where do playgrounds fit in the kid injury stats? Fortunately, others were thinking along the same lines including Chris Selley who shared her perspective in the National Post‘s Full Comment section of the paper.

“For 2010, the CIHI database of major injury hospitalizations contains 1,918 patients under the age of 20. Of those injuries, 387 (20%) were caused by falls. And of those 387 falls, just 12 (3%) involved playground equipment.”

The tenor of the CBC item may have left some parents alarmed, not to speak of cash strapped municipal governments whose capital budgets are the primary bankers for playground design, installation and maintenance.

DSC07730Halifax’s submarine playground, one of the few custom designs in the city

In truth though, the casualty here has to do with not reporting the bigger story – children are spending less and less time outdoors in self directed, independent play. It is not clear what long term repercussions will result from this societal shift that started taking place decades ago.

During the same week the CBC item was aired, two articles were published in the US. In the magazine aeon, Peter Gray wrote about the changing face of play in his article, The Play Deficit. He brings a researcher’s rigour to the subject.

“Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing.”

In The Atlantic Cities, writer Sarah Goodyear reflected on Gray’s article in her piece entitled Why our kids need play, now more than ever. Her conclusion is forceful.

“The problem is so deep and systemic that it must be addressed at all levels of society, beginning with the family. If you have kids, ask yourself if they are getting enough time to explore and run around.”

It was a great week for play in the US. This past weekend saw people gathering in Pennsylvania to promote and discuss The Philadelphia Declaration of Play. Click here if you would like to sign the Declaration or just find out more about this initiative.

Philly Declaration of PlaySome members of the Philadelphia Declaration of Play project

North America is not alone in the diminishing play scenario. The UK has a well documented challenge to contend with also. Take a look at Play England’s Love Outdoor Play campaign then ask yourself where the greater benefit lies. Is it in shining the light on the value of increasing independent play opportunities and addressing the root causes of its decline in the digital age, or is it in the relentless pursuit of safety at playgrounds?

With all due respect to those who have suffered playground injuries (and those who report on them), there is no doubt that safety issues are important, but we need to get at where we’re really hurting on a much more significant level – the shrinking role of play in our children’s lives.

Editor’s note – I was contacted by one of the reporters doing research for the national component of the CBC story. During a 20 to 30 minute conversation, I offered information on risk as it relates to play, suggested designers who provide alternatives to modular, ‘off the shelf’ playground equipment and pointed out other well established play traditions such as Europe’s adventure playgrounds that differ dramatically from the Canadian experience.

I followed up this conversation with an email that provided additional resources. Given that all my prior experiences speaking about play and playgrounds with CBC had been very positive, I was surprised that none of the background, particularly the linkages to risk as it relates to play, saw the light of day. I had been invited to do an on-air interview for the regional item coming out of Halifax but unfortunately this fell through due to scheduling conflicts.

I do hope there will be subsequent opportunities for CBC to examine the decline of independent play and its causes as well as the work that is being undertaken in Canada and around the world on behalf of kids to reverse this trend.

Let the Games Begin

For the next 16 days the world will be watching the action unfold at London’s XXX Olympiad. This is a time of focused, high performance play when athletes try to exceed their personal best for the ultimate glory of a podium prize. There will be no shortage of superhuman accomplishments over the course of these two weeks, incredible stories of endurance, strength and skill.

I can’t help but wonder how many of the gifted athletes from all corners of the globe were risk takers at their local play places as they were growing up. Was outdoor play an important component of their early childhoods?

When all the medals are counted, when the athletes and fans have returned home and the brouhaha is a distant echo, the Olympic site will be reclaimed for the people of London and transformed into Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. One of the features will be a spanking new playground.

Click to enlarge

The designers were selected through a competitive process. You can read about it in Tim Gill’s blog Rethinking Childhood. Tim is a former Director of the Children’s Play Council now Play England and was a member of one of the juries that reviewed designers’ submissions.

erect architecture and Land Use Consultants (LUC) are the winners of the North Park competition. The London Legacy Development Corporation’s news release describes erect architecture as “an emerging practice with a strong focus on culture, education and play. Their buildings and playspaces have won several high profile awards for projects such as the Kilburn Grange Playpark in north-west London.”

Based on the design and the firm’s previous work, we can look forward to an exciting playscape taking shape post Olympics.

Kilburn Grange Adventure Playground, London. Source: UK Playground Adventure

If you’re in London with kids and aren’t taking in any Olympic action, or just need a break, check out London Play and click on their ‘Play in London’ menu button to find Adventure Playgrounds and more.

We can’t all be Olympians but we can all play, play, play…

Postscript to The Science of Play in Today’s Parent

Today’s Parent, a Canadian magazine, ran a feature in their June issue on playground trends and designs – The Science of Play. Sarah Lazarovic’s article provides an excellent overview of some of the current thoughts and perspectives on the world of playgrounds. She draws on a number of knowledgeable people in Europe and North America to illustrate the story. As founder of the blog PlayGroundology, and a novitiate playgroundologist, I was very pleased to be asked to contribute a few comments.

When Sarah and I spoke, I prattled on and on and on. Her questions provided some airtime to share thoughts on a topic I’ve become passionate about. I now have a modest couple of years under my belt researching and conducting interviews that eventually wind up as posts in this blog. My kids and I have also racked up some practical experience putting close to 100 playgrounds in five provinces through their paces. Just today, my son Noah-David piped up to me en route to one of our current local favourites, “Papa, we’re playground explorers, aren’t we?” Our hometown adventures, captured since the summer of 2009 in Halifax Plays, are just about to get underway for this year.

Home on the Range – Halifax

The Science of Play hits all the high notes on its whirlwind tour. Sarah does a tremendous job of connecting the dots on a story where the subject matter defies stereotyping or pigeonholing. There is no one size fits all when it comes to public playspaces. Sarah’s interview for the Today’s Parent story was a chance to share some of the playground knowledge I’ve acquired in the recent past. More importantly, the story presents a significant opportunity to build on Canadian conversations about what goes on behind the scenes of playground planning and development – discussions around policy considerations, design and financing models for example.

It’s in that spirit that I offer this postscript to Sarah’s article in order to expand on a couple of the points and provide some context around one of my comments.

Comparatively speaking, from what I have seen in eastern Canada, there is a lack of creativity when it comes to playground design in this country. All we have to do is look overseas to Denmark, Germany, the UK, Sweden and Finland where design is flourishing. Their towns and cities have not been overtaken by the march of composite plastics and prefab metal posts and beams.

Although creative design is not a hallmark of the Canadian playground ethos, it is not totally absent from the landscape. There are bright spots well worth a look. Nestled on the Mountain in downtown Montreal is Salamander Playground – green grass, grand trees and a water orb. In the nation’s capital, Strathcona’s Folly is a time capsule playspace made from architectural bric à brac, a treasure of form and texture.

Water Orb – Montreal’s Salamander Playground. Click here for Original Designs slideshow.

The Magdalen Islands’ Boats are anchored safely ashore as they crash and crest through imaginary seas. And as home port to Canada’s East Coast Navy, maritime traditions run deep in Halifax and now kids can pretend they’re on a diving adventure à la Jules Verne on their own orange submarine. In Winnipeg, there’s Assiniboine Park Playground opened in the spring of 2011 that puts nature front and center. I’m hoping someday to get out to Richmond, B.C., just to test and tour that funked up Garden City Park Playground.

In Halifax, we are well served by the number of playgrounds – over 300 – and by high maintenance standards. But with the exception of our orange submarine, we’re kind of sparse on the discovering new design frontiers department. As parents, if we’re not satisfied with the current state of playground design then we have a responsibility to band together and engage our municipal governments and/or school boards to bring about change. This is not change just for the sake of it. It’s about creating enticing spaces with public funds that will help to break the pall of physical inactivity which is becoming endemic. It’s about valuing creativity in our children and local designers and fashioning space that calls out for imaginative play.

Canada could benefit from a voluntary sector organization that focuses exclusively on advocating for play on behalf of kids. These organizations exist in Europe and Australasia. I’m thinking here of Play England and its independent sister organizations such as Play Wales which hosted the 2011 International Play Association World Conference.

These groups conduct research, develop policy guidelines, compile and curate online resources, work with and challenge government, deliver programming and fulfill an important role in the public promotion of play. They are a non-commercial voice of sanity. In the US the social entrepreneur group KaBOOM! does similar work promoting play through Playful Cities USA in addition to spearheading playground builds with local communities.

On the question of costs, customized designs local or otherwise, can be more expensive but this is certainly not always the case. If there are no requests for alternative playground designs being made of a municipality then the path of least resistance is a trip to the numerous manufacturers who provide tried and true professional service that does not deviate from code and embodies more of the same old, same old. With price tags running anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 they’re certainly not in the ‘cheap’ category. Playgrounds are big business.

Ontario’s public broadcaster TVO with Sinking Ship Productions has co-produced the first season of a show that’s all about do-it-yourself improvements and renos to local playgrounds by the kids who use them. Each project comes in at $10,000 cash with additional donations and volunteer labour. It’s an interesting model that might catch on. Read about it soon here in PlayGroundology.

Thanks to the editors at Today’s Parent for assigning this article. This is a conversation that should continue to grow. There is more to this universe of play and playgrounds than meets the eye. I don’t have any sophisticated media monitoring tools at my disposal but I sense there is an uptick in Canada’s mainstream media on coverage that focuses on play and playgrounds. I’ve seen stories on TVO, heard them on CBC Radio and read them in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Toronto Star, The Calgary Herald and The Vancouver Sun to name some that come immediately to mind.

Keep the play movin’.

ScreenShot Mondays – The UK’s Birds of Play

A couple of Mondays per month, PlayGroundology screenshots a cyberspot that focuses on playgrounds, or play. I hope readers dive in and explore. Even if you’ve seen the selection before, take a moment and check to see what content has been added recently.

Think of this as a very slow stumble upon, an invitation to relish something new or to revisit an old friend. Some of the people and places may be household names in the world of play and playgrounds, others not so much. I hope all will pique your interest in what they have to offer and further your own possibilities for playfulness.

Play England

This week’s edition of ScreenShot Mondays features four, count them, 4 brilliant UK play organizations. Together with communities and constituents they do so much in the name of play. They are involved in research, policy development, promotion and advocacy. They’re the best friends play could ever have.

Be sure to check each group’s resource section. There are some great treasures to discover.

Playboard Northern Ireland

From my vantage point across the pond, I see these UK organizations as birds of a feather, birds of play so to speak. With the magic of social, we’ve got them flocking together right here at PlayGroundology.

Play Wales

Each of them has got amazing work on the go. This past summer, Play Wales hosted the International Play Association conference. Check their site for insights from play leaders.

Play Scotland

None of these organizations do it alone. They play well with others, they collaborate, they share and they engage with other organizations, individuals, the larger civil society and of course with kids….

We’re fortunate to have groups like these managed by dedicated staff and volunteers.


Play England
Playboard Northern Ireland
Play Wales
Play Scotland

Play England and Demos go Policy Wonking in the Real World

Play is to children as breathing is to life.

However, the management of public space is not always conducive to muscle twitching outdoor play. There’s competition too – all screen and no play make little Jimmy and Jenn dullards. What’s a responsible and compassionate society to do?

Gathering the facts for evidence-based decision making is always a good place to start to help inform public policy deliberations. Back in 2007, Play England did just that with the release of Seen and Heard: Reclaiming the public realm with children and young people.

The pamphlet was researched by Demos, a British think tank “driven by the goal of a society populated by free, capable and secure powerful citizens”. Researchers undertook a literature review and carried out case studies in six communities with children between the ages of 6 and 18.

Although the findings are specific to England, the study’s recommendations are worth a close look by parents, advocates and play professionals in other countries. The final work was not limited to the printed page. The video distills and compresses while encouraging those with an interest in the subject matter to go deeper. And what’s more, there was a public performance in the streets immediately outside the venue where the study launch took place – play within play. Artists Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen put on the ritz for the lords and ladies in the name of play.

If you’re already familiar with this pamphlet, please excuse this johnny come lately. But if like me, you’re seeing it for the first time, then get ready for an informative and thought provoking read. Hit the share buttons and give it good word of mouth.

Thank you to Play England, Demos, Joost Beunderman, Celia Hannon and Peter Bradwell for producing the study and publishing it under a generous open access licence.


Playgrounds of the Future – BBC News Magazine, November 14, 2007.

Children’s charity warns that Government cuts to play will harm children – National Children’s Bureau, March 10, 2011.

Playgrounds Take a Hit in England

Playgrounds are big news in England over the last couple weeks. On August 4, people in cities and towns throughout the country participated at over 860 events organized to celebrate the 22nd annual Playday campaign.

This week The Guardian, Channel 4 News (with four minute video), the BBC and The Mail Online are reporting on funding cuts to the former Labour government’s Playbuilder scheme.

Formally launched in 2008, the policy initiative earmarked £235m to be accessed by 122 local councils (at £1.1m per council) to build 3500 playgrounds. Numerous playgrounds planned to proceed to the build phase this year risk being scrapped altogether.

In a letter to local authorities, Education Secretary Michael Gove wrote, “…play has to make its contribution to tackling the deficit along with other important programs.” Communities are looking to see how they themselves can fund projects that are now in jeopardy of not proceeding.

Play England has issued a news release outlining its response to the Government’s plan to identify savings through reductions to the Playbuilder scheme. Numerous observers comment on the country’s soaring child obesity rates and the role that playgrounds may be able to play in reducing this trend.

This week, with plans for many playgrounds under threat, it’s not play as per usual. Parents can be forgiven if they’re not feeling quite as much love in jolly olde England.

Dunkinfield Park, Greater Manchester – Photo courtesy of Parklover

Update – August 13

See below opposing views on the cuts to the Playbuilder program from two bloggers in merry olde England.

In this corner, in support of the cuts – Of Playgrounds and Spending Cuts.

And in defense of continued playground expenditures – Milk and Playgrounds.