Dear Councillors and Mayors,
In many jurisdictions throughout the world, local governments have a primary responsibility for the provision of public play spaces. Land use planning, budgets, tendering for design and build, inclusiveness, staffing, maintenance and safety as well as public engagement are among the key considerations that you as elected officials and civil servants assess when making decisions on public play spaces for kids.
Two themes that continue to surface in the current play context focus on risk and on a broader range of play opportunities for kids in public spaces. They are frequently intertwined.
In higher income countries, discussions are taking place on these topics with professionals from a variety of backgrounds including health promotion, injury prevention, childhood development, playwork, recreation, physical literacy, landscape architecture and urban planning.
Mainstream media – The Atlantic, Macleans, Le Monde, The Sydney Morning Herald and SBS – Dateline– are reporting on shifting societal attitudes linked to risk and play and rediscovering a play menu for public spaces that goes beyond the standardized, off the shelf fixed equipment. And of course, parents and caregivers have much to contribute to the conversation.
There is a general softening of the ‘zero risk’ ethos. An indulgence in over-protection, characterized and sometimes caricatured as ‘helicopter parenting’ and ‘cotton wool culture’, is on the wane. Momentum is building and coalescing around a new understanding that sees risk as part and parcel of an organic play continuum.
Two recent additions to the literature on risk and play provide evidence-based insights and perspectives that can help inform discussion and decision-making.
Tim Gill is an independent scholar, advocate and consultant on childhood. His latest contribution to the field of children’s play is Playing it Safe? (free download – 43 pages) a white paper commissioned and published by the Bernard van Leer Foundation
The UK based charity, Pop-Up Adventure Play sponsored a research paper – Comparing Injury Rates on a Fixed Equipment Playground and an Adventure Playground (free download – 10 pages). This paper is authored by Pop-Up Adventure Play’s Morgan Leichter-Saxby and Jill Wood the Director of Adventure Play at The Parish School in Houston, Texas.
Gill’s white paper is international in scope drawing on examples from high, middle and low income countries. Though relatively more robust in high income countries, information collected by local and national authorities on childhood injuries is uneven resulting in data and knowledge gaps. What is available however, demonstrates that childhood injuries related to playground activities are at the low incidence end of the spectrum.
In Ontario, Canada for example, playground equipment related concussions were ranked in seventh place out of ten contributing factors behind soccer, baseball and cycling as well as contact sports and motor vehicle incidents. Gill concludes through a review of the literature that playgrounds are in fact “relatively safe places for children to spend time”.
Nevertheless, there is still an imperative to manage risk responsibly.
“The prime risk management challenge facing those who manage play facilities or oversee children at play is to make sound judgements in the light of children’s need and wish for stimulating play opportunities. A connected challenge is to be in a position to justify judgements in the face of possible criticism.”
The paper continues by offering a pragmatic approach for understanding and evaluating what is at play. Namely, risk benefit assessment – “a risk management tool that brings together considerations about both risks and benefits in a single process.” An introduction and template for an ‘RBA’ is provided as Appendix 1.
Clearly written and highly accessible, Gill’s work presents much more depth and nuance than are suggested in these few snippets. Spoiler alert, coming up below are the the recommendations from this excellent overview of risk and play (click to enlarge).
For their part, Leichter-Saxby and Wood write about a very specific environment. The Parish School in Houston, locale for the study, houses both an adventure playground and a standardized play space with fixed manufactured equipment.
This tale of two playgrounds is ready made for a comparison of injuries recorded in two very distinct venues. The writers acknowledge a bias to adventure play and the playwork tradition. The numbers however speak for themselves.
Leichter-Saxby and Wood emphasize that both playgrounds present very low risk for injury. In a list of activities where rugby represents a high incidence of injury and snooker a low incidence, the Adventure Playground is just marginally above snooker and the fixed equipment just beyond that.
Over a five year period, the risk of injury was calculated at 0.00078% for the Adventure Playground and at 0.00336% for the fixed equipment play area.
Reading the study’s conclusion we should anticipate more on this topic from Pop-Up Adventure Play.
From this small sample, one can begin to question the assumption that playgrounds explicitly designed to remove risks lead to fewer injuries. One might investigate the other factors, such as the role of adults trained to understand play and risk. Or, it is possible that counterintuitively play equipment that is uneven, pointy, wobbly, irregular, and made by children themselves might cause children to act differently and thereby lead to fewer injuries. Playwork philosophy theorizes that both contribute. More study is required.
Both studies are quick, easy reads that present invaluable information.
As for a broader range of play opportunities in public spaces, we’re starting to experience that in Canada with firms like earthscape and space2place, with the proliferation of natural playgrounds and forest schools, all abilities playspaces and the growing popularity of loose parts play. Next it will be time to resurrect the adventure playground defunct since the 1970s in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. They are sure to rise again, rumblings are already being heard, and afford kids an entirely different play experience.
Bravo to all the local governments who are experimenting and extending themselves perhaps a little beyond their comfort zones in the name of play. The kids are loving you for your actions.
For kids, play is not an outcome based pursuit. It is spontaneous and without any specific purpose beyond play itself. As adults we all have a responsibility to help children experience the joy of play. Let’s embrace risk and resilience and support the renaissance of play.
Ed’s note – I worked with the Pop-Up Adventure Play team including Morgan Leichter-Saxby as well as with Tim Gill during their respective 2017 and 2015 public engagements in Halifax, home of PlayGroundology.
From May 31 to June 3, Canada’s national association for municipal government, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) is holding its Annual Conference in Halifax. Hopefully some of the delegates will have the opportunity to speak to play and visit some of the city’s newer play offerings.