I 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. According 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.”
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.