This post has a simple aim: to get you to rethink playground safety. Through a handful of images of playgrounds from around the world, I hope to encourage you to abandon any preconceived notions you may have about what a safe playground looks like.
I focus on unsupervised, public play spaces. The kind of spaces that are routinely built and rebuilt, in their hundreds of thousands, every year, for children around the world.
This focus is deliberate. Yes, some staffed adventure playgrounds truly challenge our notions about risk in play. But they are a different model, with their high fences, restricted opening hours and attentive, engaged staff. Their approach to safety is a subject for another time. Likewise, school play spaces raise different questions again, and are not included here.
To be absolutely clear: what follows is not a collection of great play spaces – indeed some are, in design terms, disappointing. It is a provocation: a set of images that challenges received wisdom.
Before the exhibition proper starts, I want to show some images of a single playground – from Newington Green in Islington, London – that together sum up many people’s ideas about designing for safety.
This phrase, invented by the landscape architect and academic Helen Woolley, captures a standardised, mechanistic, unimaginative approach to the task. The allusion to fast food is of course deliberate.
The first two slides in the exhibition are of the nature playground in Valbyparken, Copenhagen.
“I am convinced that standardised playgrounds are dangerous, just in another way: When the distance between all the rungs in a climbing net or a ladder is exactly the same, the child has no need to concentrate on where he puts his feet. Standardisation is dangerous because play becomes simplified and the child does not have to worry about his movements. This lesson cannot be carried over to all the knobbly and asymmetrical forms, with which one is confronted throughout life.”
Next up is Teardrop Playground in New York City, with its large embankment slide, flanked by hazardous boulders.
I am still unsure how the designers got their client to sign off on this, given the litigious nature of Americans (An employee of NYC’s Parks Department told me a few years ago that it settles 500 playground accident claims per year. In London, I doubt if the figure is higher than 50.)
The next image is of a Dutch playground in a housing development near The Hague.
The unguarded, steep slope into deep water would bring any British or American play safety inspector out in a rash. But think for a moment. Many Dutch towns are built on floodplains or land reclaimed from the sea. Dykes, ditches and canals are part of everyday life. Most new developments are required to include a significant proportion of open water for flood management. Many domestic back gardens drop off into water. On one trip to the Netherlands, I asked some parents whether they thought it was safe to have unprotected water at the bottom of their garden. Their answer? “When our children cannot swim well, we always keep an eye on them. Once they learn, we trust them to keep themselves safe.”
You need to look a little more closely to get the point of this next image, from the playground at Spa Fields, Islington, London.
Look at the steps leading to the raised platform. They are wonky, and unevenly spaced. As such, they are in direct contravention of British (in fact, European) play equipment standards. These state: “The inclination of stairs shall be constant […] The treads shall be spaced equally, shall be of uniform construction, and shall be horizontal within ± 3°.”
This fascinating example goes to the heart of many of the problems raised by playground equipment standards around the world. The topic is discussed in detail in Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide, the UK Government-funded practice guide that I co-wrote. For now, I will simply make the obvious but oft-ignored point that, in the UK and many other countries, compliance with safety standards is not a legal requirement.
The next image, Elm Village play space in Camden, London, was designed to offer challenging climbing and balancing play opportunities suitable for older children.
The feature I want you to notice, however, is not the design of the structures, but that hole in the fence, and the vertical poles in the car park beyond – to the right of the photo. This arrangement may look dangerous; does it not allow children to climb out and be at risk from cars? But it is in fact an elegant design solution to a real safety problem. The site used to be entirely fenced. As a result, it was used as a dog toilet, and a training area for owners of aggressive dogs – to the extent that hardly anyone else ever went into the space. The hole means that dogs are no longer such a problem. As for cars: the car park is small and tight, so cars are forced to drive very slowly. The poles create a barrier and an obstacle. The play space is in any case clearly intended for older children. Any parents with younger children would notice the gap, and keep an eye on their kids.
My last, and perhaps most controversial image, is of a Japanese playground in the Tokyo district of Asakusa.
The equipment is uninspiring: similar to that used in the UK 20, 30 or even 40 years ago. But note the complete lack of safety surfacing of any kind. I visited Japan about five years ago, and I saw many neighbourhood playgrounds like this. Almost all the public playgrounds I visited had dirt underfoot, including under the equipment. To many, this would be cited as evidence that Japan was behind the times in its approach to playground safety. Yet it left me wondering the opposite: perhaps the Japanese are wise to have resisted the urge to install safety surfacing everywhere. As I argue in Chapter 2 of No Fear, the safety benefits of impact absorbent surfacing (to use the proper term) are highly debatable, and hard to prove in real-life situations. One of the reasons is that paradoxically, children may take more risks, and parents may pay less attention, if they think the ground is softer. This is an effect known as risk compensation. Since I wrote No Fear, more evidence has emerged [pdf link] that the high-tech rubber surfacing that is preferred in many UK playgrounds appears to be causing more injuries, not fewer.
Risks cannot be eliminated. Children need opportunities for challenging, adventurous play. We in turn need to recognise that children can manage many types of risk, that they learn fast, and that they often learn best from their mistakes. Hence, what is needed is a balanced, thoughtful approach to playground safety. (Needless to say, this is not to imply that anything goes.) I’d love to hear your views, and your examples of playgrounds that challenge accepted wisdom.
Postscript: anyone interested in seeing Danish, Swedish and German play spaces in the flesh should consider joining the Norwegian landscape architect and outdoor play advocate Frode Svane on one of his study tours. I can thoroughly recommend them.