The Importance of balancing risky play and safety

by | Oct 14, 2016 | Featured Slider, Latest, News

Written by: Lizelle Wolmarans, Senior Landscape Architect.

Research in the field of play reveals a contrast on how play is viewed. Most of the field is focused on play equipment, together with safety, liability and cost issues, while a smaller but increasingly vocal group of play experts (including environmental psychologists, child development specialists,landscape architects, educators) are advocating a reassessment of the play environment. Redesigning traditional playgrounds, (the familiar swings, slides and jungle gyms offering gross-motor play activities, often isolated from other activities) does not often result in significantly improved play opportunities that benefit the optimal development of children.

1.      Safety standards in South Africa

South Africa has adopted the former British and now international playground safety standards, particularly European standards such as EN 1176 and 1177 promulgated by Comité Européen de Normalisation (CEN, 2008a,2008b) in Canada. Although these standards are not legalized in South Africa, it is provided as a guideline to prevent hazardous risks.

Looking at the evidence regarding injuries and fatalities it is important to understand the main reasons why standardization of playgrounds are considered so important to play providers and municipalities. Society has become increasingly overprotective over children due to perceptions of danger. This has led to fears of litigation on play provider’s side. There is also a large influence of commercial business that promotes “safety” features riding on the back of wrong or misapplied injury data to develop these standards.

It is however important that both planners and parents are aware of the importance of risky play and that safety policy and regulations do not get in the way of this vital form of play.

2.      What is Risky Play and why is it so important?

Through play we learn how to live. We learn societal roles, norms, values, physical and cognitive competencies, creativity, self-worth and efficacy. Play is the work of children where they learn how to make decisions, problem-solve, exert self-control, follow rules, regulate emotions and develop and maintain peer relationships.

Our environment is not without risk and therefore we need to learn how to manage risk continuously as a survival skill.  In South Africa in particular, children have to deal with a wide range of eminent dangers.  At an early age risk is taken by babies when they learn to walk. Taking risks at a young age teaches humans and animals how to interact with the environment and how to avoid and adjust to dangerous situations and activities.

However, where risk is eliminated from playgrounds, challenge is eliminated; leading to boredom whereby children may potentially feel the need to take excessive risk using equipment inappropriately that can cause unintentional injury.

From investigative research in the needs of children’s social and physical development and their behaviour in using play equipment, it was found that children often seek new ways to use the equipment. Also it is found that the equipment does not provide for the development of some of the physical skills that children need. The specification of these gaps can help designers propose new concepts for outdoor play equipment

3.      Balancing Risk and Safety Standards

A sensible approach to safety and injury prevention means facilitating and securing environments that prevent disabling injuries and even death, but also to avoid an over-focusing on physical security that deprives children the opportunity for natural risk management. In that way, children will be better equipped to manage challenging and risky situations that they will meet both in childhood and later in life.

A new method of assessing risks (already being implemented in some European countries) should be developed whereby a Risk benefit assessment should be done alongside the hazardous risk inspection.

A helpful link:

In light of the research and information of Risky Play, it is evident that children need the thrill and excitement of height, speed and physical challenge. The challenge for designers and facilities providers is therefore to balance the safety with the risks.

4.      What does the future of playgrounds in South Africa look like?

If awareness and action is not taken now, the future of South African playgrounds may look very bleak and boring.

The problem is that if playgrounds do not provide challenges and risks, then people will use them once and never again or very rarely. That would mean that the money spent was wasted and that the park in itself would be unsuccessful – EMPTY.

More focus should go into making the entire space/park safe and accessible for children of all ages to be able to play without crime or traffic hazards. Less focus should be on play units and making equipment so safe, that it becomes a sterile environment that is not conducive to learning.

A successful playground will be easily identified. It is the one where children play for hours and where parents stay longer, giving children more time to play.


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