It’s health and safety gone sane!

Glamis Adventure Playground double swingI see what you did there. So I take it you are not about to share another crazy story about kids being wrapped in cotton wool.
Indeed not. Today is a good day for getting rid of the white fluffy stuff. You see, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has launched a statement that promotes a balanced, thoughtful approach to safety in children’s play.

Really? What does it say?
The statement starts with a thumbs-up for adventurous, challenging play. It says that play allows children and young people to “explore and understand their abilities; helps them to learn and develop; and exposes them to the realities of the world in which they will live, which is a world not free from risk but rather one where risk is ever present.” It recognises that “children will often be exposed to play environments which, whilst well-managed, carry a degree of risk and sometimes potential danger.” And it encourages schools, councils and others to “deal with risk responsibly, sensibly and proportionately.”

You’ve got me interested. But I thought the HSE’s focus was on factories and workplaces. Why is it bothered about children playing?
Two reasons. First, it is getting fed up with the way that people sometimes wrongly blame health and safety rules for daft prohibitions – conkers, pin the tail on the donkey, that kind of thing. Secondly, it is worried about how children will ever learn to manage risk if they are never exposed to it. Judith HackettAccording to HSE Chair Judith Hackitt, “it is clear that attitudes to risk are formed long before young people enter the world of work. Play outdoors teaches young people how to deal with risk and without this they are ill equipped to deal with working life.”

Strong stuff. I didn’t know the HSE were experts in child development.
They are not saying they are. But the statement is a joint one, produced with the the Play Safety Forum (PSF). PSF members include Play England, Play Scotland, Play Wales and Playboard Northern Ireland, who know a thing or two about children and play. They have all welcomed the statement. [Declaration of interest #1: I am an adviser to the PSF and was involved in the drafting process.]

PSF Chair Robin Sutcliffe is pleased too. He called it a landmark statement, saying that it will “help councils, schools, charities and others to give children and young people greater freedom to experience challenging and adventurous play and leisure opportunities.”

Glamis Adventure Playground fireBy the way, the playworkers over there have just started a campfire in the middle of the Adventure Playground. You may want to take off those flip-flops and put on some proper shoes.

Thanks, will do. This all sounds good. But is it going to make any real difference?
That is a fair question. Perhaps the most significant move is that the statement explicitly supports risk-benefit assessment, describing it as a “sensible approach to risk management.” As its name implies, risk-benefit assessment brings together in a single judgement thinking about both the risks and the benefits of an activity, play opportunity, facility, or piece of equipment. The approach is set out in the PSF/Play England publication Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide, which was published in 2008 [declaration of interest #2: I co-wrote this]. As I have argued, this shift is a game-changing move. It is one of the reasons why – as you may have noticed – some quite adventurous playgrounds have been created in the last few years.

That is hard to deny, looking at what is going on around me here. So this statement has not come out of the blue?
No. It is the latest outcome of a long process of constructive engagement between play advocates, safety agencies and the HSE. In a nice piece of timing, it comes ten years after the publication by the PSF of the position statement Managing Risk in Play Provision (which was also endorsed by the HSE). It also makes good on the Government’s 2010 Young Review commitment to promote risk-benefit assessment. You could say it marks a new high point in official support for the approach.

So what happens now – and what can I do?
The key point behind today’s announcement is that the door is now open for all those who work in contexts where children play to change their systems and take forward risk-benefit assessment. That way, we can ensure that we are giving children play and learning opportunities that do justice to their appetite for challenge, discovery and adventure.

You have truly opened my eyes. I am off to revise my risk assessment forms and add a new box where I can write down the benefits. Then I am going to gather some wood, and start me up a campfire with the kids. Thanks!
You are most welcome. Come back any time. And mind out for that tyre swi-. Ouch. Oh dear. Still, no serious damage – maybe next time you’ll keep more of an eye out. Adventure playgrounds are not for the faint-hearted, you know.

Hat-tip to Tim Harford’s blog for inspiring the format of this post. Photos from Glamis Adventure Playground [why not visit it with me?]

Update Tues 4 Sept: the HSE statement has been widely reported in the UK press, including the Daily Telegraph, Independent and Daily Mail.

51 responses to “It’s health and safety gone sane!

  1. Reblogged this on Love Outdoor Play.

  2. Great stuff …. working in an open adventure playspace with the Exploring Nature play project (Play England/ Play Torbay), it is good to have this kind of sensible attitude so that we can allow the children the freedom they want to have adventures they choose, skill themselves with the “tools” they need … and have fun, playing their childhood out …

  3. Richard Kirbyshaw

    Thanks – I’m a governor of a Primary School and while not officially responsible for H&S, I will use this to inform our risk (and benefit) assessment process.

  4. Thanks Tim – It really feels that we’re all getting very grown up about the joys of recognising the importance of risk in play

  5. Thanks for the reactions so far. As Tudor says, it feels like we’ve moved a long way in the right direction. I’d invite everyone who reads this to share the good news with anyone who works with children.

  6. Tim,
    That’s great news. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out in the wider world.
    I look forward to the first accident claim company advertisement that goes something like:
    ‘Had an accident in the playground? We can show you the benefits your child gained from the experience. Call now for our life enhancing package. Only £999 if you call today!’

  7. Good stuff :-)
    Now, for an encore can they come back and point out the principle also applies beyond play? If they do maybe then I won’t be in the absurd position of requiring P7 pupils I’m doing Bikeability training with to wear crash helmets built to guard against minor injuries to mitigate a risk which is almost certainly far, far lower than they face playing tig or football in the playground once they’re back in school…

  8. Tim, fantastic Blog, I would like to steal it and pass it round my friends. Hits the nail on the head, so to speak! My reason for being so enthusiastic about Risk Benefit Assesment (RBA) is that my interests have always been with edges of convention, particularly in the Arts and Play and that is just where RBA offers greatest benefit, to innovation and imagination.

  9. Thank you for this post. Great to see and let’s hope it spreads internationally, too. As a school in Australia, we stand up to the “daft” use of health and safety legislation to ensure our boys have a traditional experience of adventure and responsible risk taking. Last week, one school in Sydney banned cartwheels in the playground unless supervised by a trained gym teacher. To see the UK further develop the understanding we should assess risk on the loss of a learning opportunity is a great start to the pendulum swing. Without trying to “advertise” our unique school, I share our adventures so others can see what is possible if we stand up to what we believe and have a community that supports the same – see Tudor House School, NSW. Our boys climb trees, ride bikes/skateboards, cook on fires, play marbles, build cubbies, camp out on weekends, fish and enjoy woodwork. Not so much school as a learning environment.

    • John – your school sounds great. I know from my visits that many Aussies are becoming concerned that children are being over-protected. I’m hoping to return in late Oct/early Nov – I’ll post more news on my website when the itinerary is confirmed.

  10. Really great blog, as everyone else has said … moving in a positive direction! It is amazing how in Uganda we are building play spaces to encourage children to assess and deal with risk, and in the UK for a long time we were just trying to run away from any type of risk! Really positive news!

  11. Excellent post. Now we have to convince all the worried parents and caregivers that YES ITS OK for children to be adventurous. It’s about being a good judge at all times (obviously you wouldn’t let your child jump from something extremely high). Children in Germany at early ages are jumping from structure to structure and they know what their bodies can do/can’t do. Children are born competent and resilient! :)

  12. Pingback: Balancing Benefits with Risk « grumpysutcliffe

  13. Tim – excellent work by you and the PSF. I know how much time and effort went into getting this sorted. That statement is going to be a very useful catalyst – just when I thoughts things were going the wrong way too…hurrah! (Dave Taylor)

  14. As noted in my update above, the HSE statement has been widely reported in the UK press this morning (Tues 4 Sept), including the Daily Telegraph, Independent and Daily Mail.

  15. Well done Tim, isn’t it wonderful how perceptions do change given time. Trust, belief and patience, with a heap of hard work and resilience, are transforming attributes and look at this result, makes me smile and relax; everyone is going to want to come out and play now!

  16. I have no doubt that this will be a turning point in managing risk. There can be no more hiding behind the words ‘Health and Safety’ for those who are not willing or prepared to offer children what they need for a good childhood. Many thanks to all in the Play Safety Forum

    • Hi Michael – thanks for this. “There can be no more hiding behind the words ‘Health and Safety’ for those who are not willing or prepared to offer children what they need” – well said!

  17. Hi Tim
    Congratulations to all UK children and children’s advocates! This is wonderful and really a turning point!
    As a synchronicity I can tell, that the debate on play safety and risk is at its highest in the Danish medias as well, starting with a one hour live discussion on the playground as a cultural institution last Friday in the Danish Broadcasting Corporation where I was invited together with two more “experts” ;-)
    Monday this week MetroXpress and “24 timer” had a headline on the frontpage “Playgrounds have become too safe” and a two page article inside the paper with a headline saying “A Hysterical focus on safety is bad to your child”. Though you can’t read the Danish language you could enjoy the photos on page 4-5 of children playing at the Nature Playground in Valbypark, Copenhagen: http://www.e-pages.dk/24timer/3399/
    I’m writing a feature article and some other contributions for Danish papers and magazins, and I’m so happy now to mention the current UK development!
    Excited to see what’s more going to happen! Thank you for sharing this.
    Right now I’m on my way to talk to another Danish paper..
    Warmest wishes
    Helle Nebelong

  18. Interesting to hear about the developments in Denmark Helle. As someone who has for years taken inspiration from your work, and the work of other Danish designers, I am sorry to hear that you have been facing similar pressures. Still, it sounds like you are busy making the case for a better approach. Good luck!

  19. Great news and thanks for sharing it in such an engaging way, Tim. Having a manic start to September and I missed this so thank goodness for Rethinking Childhood… only yesterday I was explaining the welcome trend towards risk benefit to a group of teachers in a Surrey school. I’ll mail the link to this article to them, couldn’t be better timing.

  20. Pingback: Just out on the HSE’s site: Children’s play and leisure: promoting a balanced approach | NW Play Network

  21. This is really useful Tim and I will share it with fellow Heads and
    Teachers as I know it will give them confidence to allow their children be to more adventurous and to judge risks for themselves. It is so interesting to hear the experiences from around the world and how all we face similar debates. We have been having great fun this week with some logs we have acquired with the children carrying, clambering over and jumping from them. The learning opportunities are endless with just giving children this freedom and trusting them to explore and challenge themselves ! Thank you for your really useful blog and all of your hard work influencing policy so we can feel armed to make the case with people we work with.

  22. Hi Jo – thanks for your comment, and I appreciate your positive feedback on my blog. Your log project is a lovely example of how taking a balanced approach to risk gives schools permission to expand children’s play and learning opportunities.

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  27. This is great Tim. I will be sending the HSE statement to our insurance company who recently paid out £3K to a child who got a splinter in her hand while playing at the adventure playground, even though we were against it. There were complications due to the hospital not removing the splinter properly, but the insurers basically made a decision based on finances – it would be cheaper to pay out rather than contest it in court. Another victory to the ‘no win – no fee’ parasites.

    • Thanks Nick. In the Managing Risk Guide there’s a case study about Wolverhampton, where the corporate risk management team takes a robust approach to claims. One thing it does is have an excess of £250,000, so the insurers don’t get involved in most claims. It also treats every claim on its merits – if officers do not think they are liable, they fight. You may want to bring this to the attention of your risk people.

  28. Pingback: Taking a balanced approach to risk in childhood: Why and how | Rethinking Childhood

  29. Thank you for your blog Tim, it has helped me no end with my H&S assignment with regard to balanced risk and the dilemma of letting children choose. However, if you had not made your blog and articles so interesting and research worthy I would have finished my assignment hours ago!!

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  31. Great for adventure playgrounds and the such, but I wonder how much real term affect it will have; being that most playworkers (young, part-time, volunteers) will have no clue about either process really anyway. I think children should face risk, of course, but this polarised arguement only affects those people who’s primary role is not face to face playwork, but advocating to keep the ‘top layer’ of playworkers, theorists, tutors, consultants etc. in business . And I for one think that children today have enough risk to deal with, maybe not the ideal risks some playwork theorists would like, such as lighting fires in adventure playgrounds, but increased road traffic, bullying, cooking ones food, cleaning the home etc because parental supervision is limited to to increased working hours etc. And for the record, the scaremoungering about health and safety gone mad, useually stems from people such as those writing on here, in fact there are no rules banning concers etc. but some professions and organisations peddle this idea and blow the reality out ofthe water.

  32. Thanks for the comment James. I think that face-to-face workers need to be able to reflect on their approach, and explain it. And I think that the RBA model will help. You are right that any formal risk management process is partly about showing others that a reasonable approach is being taken – and that managers and others in the chain of command are concerned about this (sometimes, over-concerned). As for risk in children’s lives, of course it varies enormously. As you say, some children are asked to take too much responsibility, too soon, and some risks (like road danger) are unacceptably high. My message – and I hope the message behind RBA – is neither a blanket ‘risk is good’ nor ‘risk is bad’. It is ‘let’s take a balanced, thoughtful approach to the varied risks children face.’ And finally, I agree that much of the anxiety and confusion around ‘elf and safety’ is generated by myth-making and scare-mongering. But that’s not the only problem. Indeed I argue in No Fear it’s not the source of the problem. The source of the problem is confusion about what a good enough childhood looks and feels like.

  33. With respect to your last sentance, which I feel goes straight to the heart of this risk matter; we in the playwork world should not be the judge of what a good childhood looks like, and what risks other peoples children should expereince; we are not the constructors of childhood. We are always told that each person is an individual, and therfore there cannot be a blanket approach for our children in this regard. This balance is of course, sensible, but my fear is that this message about balancing risk with precautions etc. is to vague for many playworkers. Like it or not, those inexpereinced playworkers (of which there are many) will not benefit from such guidance and therfore will not have the positive impact we would like / hope. Likewise how can we expect unqualified workers to identify what developmental stage a person is at, what their expereinces at home are like, what their parents wishes are etc. in relation to facilitating risky play in environments where parents themselves no little about (especially in the counties where i work in community play clubs, where we never get to meet 70%+ of parents to ask about their wishes). Kind regards, (keep up the good work) James

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  37. Great information

  38. Pingback: Want to take a more balanced approach to risk? Here’s the tool you have been waiting for | Rethinking Childhood

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