Playgrounds that rip up the safety rules

Girl hanging from a fallen tree in Valbyparken playgroundThis 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.

Newington Green playgroundThe approach is succinctly described by the acronym ‘KFC’: Kit, Fence, Carpet.

Newington Green KFC playground

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.

Valbyparken nature park 1

Valbyparken Nature Park 2

The space was designed by the Danish landscape architect Helle Nebelong. Helle’s designs are highly naturalistic, but also reflect some sophisticated thinking about safety. She has said:

“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.

Teardrop playground slideI 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.

Dutch waterside playgroundThe 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.

Spa Fields play structureLook 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.

Elm Village play structureThe 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.

Tokyo Asakusa playgroundThe 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 [ link to pdf document – may require login] 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.

104 responses to “Playgrounds that rip up the safety rules

  1. Excellent, Tim. A necessary reinforcement of what should be more widely understood – and acted upon. There really is no reason in law, or under regulations or guidelines, for a narrow and mistaken understanding about ‘health and safety’ in play provision to prevail. And it bears repetition that ‘Managing Risk in Play Provision: implementation guide’, to which you refer, provides rationale, practical assistance and authority to those ready to release themselves from self-imposed restrictions when providing for play, whether in parks, residential estates, schools and other forms of provision.
    Bernard Spiegal, co-author, Managing Risk in Play Provision

  2. Well done! I only wish there were children in these photos, if only to show how they use the places.

  3. How refreshing that there are thinkers out there applying their brains to children’s welfare. It’s so much less demanding to switch off and go through the motions of caring by doing check-box risk assessments and relying on install-and-forget strategies.

  4. Brilliant – the sort of well argued case that is needed to provide support to those of us in the UK who are working to create better play experiences for children.

  5. SUPER playgrounds! Children who still have some sense of adventure and daring would love these. Adults less so. We’re too discouraged about life to see it as a constant training ground for wondrous discoveries and challenges. How sad for those children who fail to overcome such negative pressures. Last comment is to simply repeat Carol’s question. . . Where are the children?

  6. Thanks for the comments so far – and great to see my two collaborators (and co-authors of Managing Risk…) Bernard and David here. I’ll briefly pick up on the lack of children in some of the photos. I agree that this is a shame. I chose the images carefully to illustrate the points made in the text. It is important to realise that even the best playgrounds do not always have children in them (for instance, I visited Teardrop on a freezing weekday morning in February). Also, it can be difficult for me to take photographs of children I do not know: a scenario other playground aficionados will recognise, and perhaps a topic for another time.

  7. I wonder about those so-called safety mats. My daughter broke her arm in two places falling on a safety mat. (Off a swing.) I’m thinking if it had been pea gravel she would have been okay. (The gravel can shift and has more give.)

    I love those adventure playgrounds and the idea that irregular spaces cause children to have to think about how they move–fantastic! More fun too! Kids love a challenge.

    • Jean – thanks for the comment. If the hypothesis of that research I linked to is right, your daughter may well have been ok. But even pea gravel may have the unwanted side-effect of encouraging children to take more risks. No ‘safety surface’ will avoid this. Hope she made a full recovery, by the way.

  8. This article is very timely for us as we are updating our existing Nature Play Area. What types of stumps? How tall? How far apart? What about honeysuckle and clematis vines? These are mildly toxic if eaten; are they okay to plant in a children’s area? There are so many issues to consider! We, at the arboretum agree with you, but parents are another story… Thanks for the great article, photos and links! –Lee Goldsmith, The Brenton Arboretum, Dallas Center, Iowa.

    • Thanks for this Lee. How I wish I could win you and your fellow Americans over to risk benefit assessment, as set out in the Guide I refer to (seriously, I’m open to offers). I reckon Robin Moore and colleagues at NCSU’s Natural Learning Initiative should be able to help on the plants issue – you’re probably in touch with them already. I’ve heard that here in the UK at least, the stats on injuries/fatalities from plant poisoning are breathtakingly low (one child death in the last 100 years? – though don’t quote me, and if anyone out there has a reference, I’d love to see it).

      • Tim: Thank you for your response. I am relativity new to the Nature Play conversation (Although I have been aware of the concept for a few years). Do you/ have you presented at many workshops in the U.S.? It seems that the U.K. has a longer experience with Nature Play Areas per se and that U.S. Naturalists might benefit from your, and your colleagues, insights, knowledge, etc.

        Cheers. Lee

  9. Tim, Spa Fields, Islington; this was one I was involved with, just goes to show how a balanced approach using knowledge gained over the years can yield results that benefit the users of the space, yet at the same time ensure that they are not put at unecessary risk of harm.

    • Thanks for this Keith, and good to see you here. Great to hear you were involved with Spa Fields – a sound decision, and a popular, successful space, by all accounts.

  10. Robin Sutcliffe

    Hi Tim, Having just spoken here in Christchurch NZ (where they know all about the negative aspects o risk currently) I am impress by two things here that may be of interest to us back home. The first is that, despite th quakes, they seem to me to be more open and engaged with the issues around the importance of risk in play and second is the iteresting state compensation that I believe is fixed acording to injury irrespective of blame. Is this something we ought to be considering in the UK?

    I will pass your blog onto my contacts here and in Japan!

    all the best see you soon,


    • Robin, the scheme in NZ effectively means that there are no claims as the government pays for all treatment. Possibly something that could be looked into here but also suggest you look at some local playgrounds, would be interested to hear your views? My experience is more Auckland but would be interested to see some examples of Christchurch playgrounds.

  11. Pingback: Playgrounds that rip up the safety rules | The Nature of Play |

  12. wonderful. the difference lies in the child’s imagination and the interaction between child and nature, with a minimal imprint left by man.

  13. Interesting post. I definitely think Americans need to do a better job of risk/benefit analysis. I had not considered your point about safety surfaces and whether they encourage greater risk taking. Something to think about.

  14. Well written Tim! I have read your (& Bernard’s & David Ball’s) book MRPP and would love to get some of my fellow citizens of the U.S. to embrace risk and be less litigious when it comes to children’s play.

  15. Robin, Gregory, Meryl, Lisa – thanks for your comments. Re: promoting a more balanced approach to playground safety in America – I’ve had conversations on this topic with Kaboom! and Common Good, amongst others, and there seems to be an appetite for action. The lesson from here in the UK is that leadership, research, sound arguments and consensus-building can make a difference. I believe the Australians are having some success too.

  16. Tim, so pleased you were able to use an example designed and built by Theories Playscapes to illustrate the deliberate erosion of playground fences and sensitive risk benefit analysis. This innovative approach contrasts strongly however with parents who recently formed a human chain around a play area in Victoria Park London in protest against the removal of a fence around a playground even though it is set in a context of open green fields and trees. I suspect that playground fences are more for the peace of mind of the carer, who can relax and go ‘off guard’, safe in the knowledge that their charges cannot wander off, rather than for the considered safety of the children?

    • Hi Jerry – and thanks for commenting. Your design at Elm Village is indeed innovative. Interestingly, on one visit a parent complained to me that she thought it was dangerous. I explained why I took a different view – not sure if I won her over or not. I have seen the story about Victoria Park, and know some of those who worked on it. I’m hoping to visit the site. My impression is that the response of some parents (others are very happy, I gather) is down to confusion and a preconceived idea that a ‘safe’ play space has to have a fence around it. We Brits do seem to have a particular fondness for sticking our children inside bow-top fencing!

  17. Absolutely on the button as always, Tim. Thank you for this great reminder of how much work there still is to do!

    I was perusing some of Svane Frode’s pictures yesterday in search of sand images, and was again struck by how many of the play scenes he’s captured have no fencing at all, bow top or otherwise! These spaces therefore immediately become an integral part of the urban fabric and as such begin to demonstrate the point you’ve made in other articles, that children and young people visible and active on the streets is a sign of a healthy society.

    I’ve always had a bit of a thing about boundaries – physical, tangible ones, I mean. Why are we so keen to entrap children in high walls (thank you for that legacy, Victorians), spiky security fences (thank you for that, local authority lawyers) and prickly bushes (thank you, clueless landscape architects)? A generalisation, I know, but it does frustrate me that despite three decades of lobbying and awareness raising, budget holders still resort to Sticks and Carpet (or Helen’s phrase) over interventions that might just take a little more thought and courage to implement but will pay dividends in terms of children’s enjoyment and wellbeing.

    Rant over…

  18. Jennifer Ward

    I love all these examples of adventurous playgrounds. I miss teeter-totters (see saws), swings that go very high, high metal slides, and the wooden and metal style playground equipment of my youth. All of these were at my school playground, too. The swings were great. We would swing super high and jump off of them.

    We have the newer style metal framed playgrounds with plastic sides in our neighborhood. Kids get bored with them easily and figure out how to climb on the very top “roof” parts. My older son did it quite quickly and him doing it never really bothered me or scared me. I found it rather smart! There are swings at our playgrounds, but they don’t go very high. Kids still go as high as they can and jump off, though.

  19. Tim!!! Beautiful. Thanks for you provocative ideas and images. Pretty exciting!

  20. Richard Barnes

    Great article Tim, very refreshing but slightly frustrating when you work , as I do, within the confines of the Local Authority mentality where the European ‘Safety’ guidlines are, to a large extent, rigidly followed. (To be fair to Newcastle City Council they have come a long way in terms of risk in playgrounds, due largely to excellent work by my colleagues designing schemes under Play Pathfinder). The argument is always ‘ we know the guidlines are not mandatory but the courts will take the line that we should apply them’. It would be intersting to know if anyone has any examples of an accident occurring in a ‘non-compliant’ playground which went to litigation and the line which the court took in settlement. I’m sure we all know of a simliar example to one which occured here in the north east. A child fell from a rockstack at about 1.8m high and unfortunaely broke her arm. The parents threatened to take the the local authority to court, the story hit the local press and Councillors issued a dictat that all rockstacks were to removed from playgrounds or reduced to a maximum height of under 1m. Not much of a stack!

    • Very interesting Richard. I work for a local authority which is considering a similar scenario at the moment. Can you state what council this involved and when, so i can look at the comparisons. I’ve tried various searches but cannot find the story you refer to.

      • Tony – you may want to get in touch with David Johnston, a risk manager at Wolverhampton Metropolitan Borough Council. They take a robust approach to defending claims (their approach is a case study in Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide). Contact me if you need help tracking him down.

  21. super article and comments…I’ll leave you all with my two cents.

    addressing anyone who things safety regs are for the birds …

    First – resilient surfacing has nothing (NOTHING) to do with orthopedic injury…this is all about catastrophic injury – to the brain. There are pros and cons to a loose fill surface and a rubber surface…in my opinion…loose fill is the best IF IT IS MAINTAINED – when a kid falls…the surface “explodes”. If anyone has ever worked with a child who fell off a climber…hit an exposed concrete footing – becomes comatose – well…not a pretty sight. Next time you drive your car DO NOT USE YOUR SEATBELT – go ahead and trust that the other drivers are not texting and driving and drive thru a stop sign (kidding – wear your seat belt). Children DESERVE to have a safety aspect of surfacing. Ever seen a kid loose fingers because an antiquated spring toy does not have safety connectors to keep the springs from crushing? Ever see the bare-feet of a child who walks on black rubber matting someone specified when it’s 90 degrees outside…or ever see the a kids butt after going down a 50′ metal slide that the designer has aimed towards the south? Grrrr. These are the sorta things that drive safety regs.

    Safety is vital…but clearly – lots of playgrounds are so “safe” they are absolute wastes…what happens in the European countries is fascinating…here in the US…lawsuits, lawsuits, lawsuits….everyone runs scared…then there are play spaces that are so antiquated and not maintained…they are accidents waiting to happen. What does one do? Well – design with a great surface in mind…make sure things, such as protrusions, entrapment, entanglement are addressed….kinda make sure common sense prevails – gotta find that balance…

    Next time someone designs a natural playground…and uses a bunch of tree logs to act as step pods…please secure them to the ground so they don’t tip over expectantly…after all – if the parent (or designer) happens to be walking towards the playground on a cobblestone path…and a stone moves too much, resulting in a broken angel…well – that is also a problem….as adults we expect the brick pathway to be stable! A child – who is somewhat clueless…expects that they can walk that balance beam and not worry about the thing tipping over – and banging their had on a rock!

    Hmmm, now about accessibility and inclusion….

    Later all. JOHN

  22. Tim, my first response to this article was so what? This is nothing new to me! It may sound cocky, i know. I am an “inspector” of playgrounds and playground equipment. So you could consider me one of the bad guys :-) ! On the other hand i have been working the last 10 years mainly on the basis of risk assessment en risk benefit analyses in conjunction with the EN1176 standard for all projects i have been engaged. These projects go from small playgrounds in city’s to big 2500 square meters playgrounds in and outdoor. As a member of the CEN TC136 SC1 committee (EN1176 and EN 1177 committee ) i know al to well the fall pits of overprotection. If a risk doesn’t kill or results in a permanent injury AND it is beneficiary to the childs development in life and its learning curve on dangers then why should we not allow this risk in its play? To often adults project their own fears in life on their children with all possible negative outcome. In my opinion all professionals in this field need to spread the message of acceptable risk in play and why it is necessary . My portfolio of “adventurous” playgrounds i have been involved in the past 10 years is for me the proof that there is a place for risk in play, only it takes courage and guts from those who are responsible for providing play space and those who “inspect” the play facilities.

  23. Loved them. I actually wanted to go see them and play!!

    I also have a great playground memory from childhood (trying to find pictures) of a playground near our home. It consisted of ‘forts’ or platforms that formed a hexagon joined together by tyre bridges. What I remember is how we used to run across those wobbly, wonky, bouncing and often broken bridges. The playground was removed many years ago unfortunately.

  24. One wonders if there is a relation between publicly funded health care and the willingness to accept more risks in design. But I’ll stop short of saying that safety surfacing causes more injuries. That sounds just silly. Remember, the (American) standards are written to prevent severe injury or death, not to prevent any and all injuries.

  25. Hello Tim,
    I work as a safety expert for playgrounds in Germany since 25 years and was member of the European standard committee for playgrounds for 15 years. And my experience on thousands of playgrounds is: You are totally right!
    Whenever we want to reduce risks by technical means, children (and adults) will “compensate” by their behavior!
    I feel that because of fear about responsibility, we act with a “spotlight-safety”. So it is important that on our playground, there are no accidents! And for that what happens outside, we don’t care!
    Looking on very serious playground accidents in Germany in the last decade, we had not a single one because of fall from higher equipment or lacking of impact attenuation or falling out from an embankment slide!
    We hade entrapment of clothing, collapsing equipment, entrapment of bicycle-helmets, tipping over of soccer goals. None of these accidents had to do with non acceptable risk levels!

  26. Julie, Jennifer, Noah, Richard, John Koen, Cass, Cheryl, Franz – thanks for your comments. Indeed thanks to everyone who has commented. I’ve been amazed by the interest in this post, and frankly have been struggling to keep up with all the responses. (At least 50 so far, including those here, on my facebook page, via twitter and on various LinkedIn groups that I belong to.) I am also pleased at the varied backgrounds of those commenting, including parents, educators, designers, academics, manufacturers and play safety professionals. The quality of many of the replies, and the time people have devoted to them, shows the degree of interest in this topic.
    The comments have raised many issues. Rather than respond further here (in what is already a long thread) I plan to write a separate post on this site soon. When I do so, I will add another comment here, with a link. In the meantime of course, please feel free to continue the conversation!

  27. Tim has started an interesting international debate. This has stimulated these thoughts (amongst others):
    a) I don’t think it’s silly as Cheryl says (but I understand the thought process) that soft surfacing causes more injuries. As Franz says, safety surfacing is an engineering solution to a public safety issue. Engineering solutions might work in factories but in public life it is also necessary to consider behavioural responses which may wipe out any projected benefit. The epidemiological and economic case in my view does not support the use of safety surfaces for injury prevention or reduction. To put it bluntly, they are a bad use of public money.
    b) Franz goes on to say that it’s important that there are no accidents on our playground. So now I must pick a fight with Franz! playgrounds can never be safe if that means zero risk. In the UK the average playground has one serious accident (hospital attendance) per year, despite the huge amount of money spent on safety. I think the correct answer to the following question: ‘Is your playground safe for my child to play in?’ would be ‘No! We’ve made it as safe as we reasonably can but children need and want exposure to real risk and so a compromise has had to be made. Accidents will happen from time to time. The only playground that has no accidents must be so boring that it is unused.’
    c) Richard refers to the lower courts relying on the European Standards in deliberating about accidents. This happens. Sometimes I act as an expert witness in these cases. When I do I also refer to the Standards but I do so critically because they are written far away by people who can know nothing of local requirements and interests (which might include healthy exercise) and whose motivations are not safety alone. What is more important from my perspective is whether the play provider had done a risk assessment (better still, a risk-benefit assessment) and thought about the provision. Most have, but often they don’t express this orally or in writing, so this is a difficulty in court. It needs also to be noted that compliance with Standards is not synonymous with having done a risk assessment (or an RBA).
    d) Koen says if a risk does not kill, why not allow it? I’d like to differentiate between a hazard and a risk here. To my mind a hazard is something that could cause harm, and risk is the likelihood it will. The problem is, for any hazard, say a step, this could result in a trip with any consequence from no injury to death depending largely on how lucky you are, each consequence having its own risk (probability). So a pond in a playground might have a low risk of drowning and a high risk of getting filthy. But it cannot have no risk of drowning. Unfortunately, the possibility of serious injuries cannot be designed out of play unless you terminate play, which would have, as recent research shows, dire consequences for children’s development and capability to handle risk.

  28. Pingback: Make it Safer. Add Risk. « Sunflower Creative Arts

  29. Love the article, Tim. When I worked at my last job, the Head had a new playground structure built (bit like this one but much bigger). It was for 4-9 year olds and looked pretty high. I distinctly remember his assembly about it the first morning it was open. He asked the children what they thought might be the issues about it, and the responses were “we might fall off”, “what do we do if we get hurt”, “some people might find it scary or difficult”. So he said, yes, that was all true, so why did the children think he’d asked for it to be built? “Because it looks FUN” they all shouted. “When can we have a go?”, “Can all our class get on at once?”, “I’d like to get to the top” etc etc. If only FUN could be measured, like people try to measure RISK.
    Personally, I loved it, and was often seen climbing on it at playtimes along with the children!!!

  30. What a great collection of international images. We’re working hard to introduce the benefit of risky play spaces in our communities. Your articles serve as fantastic reference point for tricky conversations. I was so glad to be able to direct our community of readers to you with our latest post. :)

    Quick question:
    In your travels have you discovered playgrounds which allowed the children to manipulate and/or rearrange the architecture?

    • Wow what an interesting thread this is – thanks for such a stimulating blog post Tim.

      Jonathon, you might be interested in this example of children ‘rearranging the architecture’ in a public square in London – For the last 18 months large play objects (the Snug kit) have been stored in a container at the edge of the square and regularly brought out for anyone to use – there is no formal supervision, safety surface, fencing or rules.

      Good luck with your risky places mission!

  31. Hello David,
    no, you don’t have to pick up a fight! I am sorry for my bad English, but my true intention was to tell about, how responsible persons in communities act on playground safety!
    I know, that we can not have a zero risk zone! (And I don`t to have it!). But many responsible person in the communities think in that way! This thinking leads to those restrictive interpretations of standards and those booring playgrounds.

  32. Nice article. My question is what ever happened to the true Adventure Playground where kids play with tools, old lumber, tires, etc. to build things? I hate to say it but even these playgrounds look scripted – designed by adults. Kids are losing the opportunity to really experiment with their environments. I’ve become a big fan of Gever Tulley’s School of Tinkering. It’s so important to get kids re-engaged with the world and nature.

    • Catherine, i don’t know about other countries but over here in Belgium we still have a lot of what we call ” building camp sites”. These sites are exclusively for children who want to build their own playground. These sites are under supervision of adults and teenagers. In the national legislation there is a paragraph about this kind of “playgrounds”. They use old timber, poles, nails etc for their building projects. The legislation says that playground equipment build by the children themselves under supervision and who have a “temporary” lifespan are allowed and are not covered by EN 1176 and EN 1177. So it is possible for children to learn how to handle hammers, nails, saws, etc…

      • What is missing in America is adult involvement in children’s play. We expect the space to do all the work without offering any guidance or structure. This is unrealistic and ultimately unfair to kids, and it’s unfortunately no less true in school environments than it is in public playgrounds.

  33. Just picking up on the questions from Jonathan and Catherine about play spaces that allow children to experiment, construct and destroy. Historically, this was what adventure playgrounds were all about (see the website I link to in the piece). From what I have seen, Danish APs still place a big emphasis on construction, expecially wooden huts. Sadly, many APs in the UK no longer allow for much construction. Some do: for instance Glamis AP (managed by Shadwell Community Project). There is also some interesting work on loose parts play going on in schools – for instance scrapstore playpods, the Snug kit developed by Sutcliffe Play and Snug and Outdoor, and in the USA the Imagination Playground in a box designed by Rockwell. Another topic for a blog! And yes I think Gever Tulley has done wonders in promoting the value of allowing children to experiment, explore, and take risks.

  34. I designed playground equipment for ten years in the U. S. (sold internationally) and argued for the same issues. What I observed with the safety compliant play equipment is that bored (unchallenged) kids will invent ways to make things dangerous. They will climb on top of overhead bars and roofs, climb up slides and leap off of six-foot high platforms. Allowing ALL children access to 6, 8, or 10 ft high platforms creates an inherently unsafe condition. As you state parents and kids alike are deluded into thinking the equipment is safe, but what happens when you have a two year old standing on a high platform and a group of eight year old boys running about. That two year old simply should not be there, but since they can, they will. Make it a challenge to gain elevation so kids must evaluate the risk directly. Another point is that safety standards were based on existing equipment and do not take into account new design concepts much less new philosophical thought on the realities of “safety”. As you say the component of “safety” that is missing in the standards is the developmental need to teach children how to assess risk in their decisions to get along in real world situations (survival skills).

  35. “If only FUN could be measured, like people try to measure RISK”

    Fun can be measured, at least qualitatively. If two playgrounds are close to one another then the funnest is the one that gets used the most. A child’s funnest toys are the most worn. If you make an intervention to a playground that reduces its use odds are you’ve reduced the fun too.

    Risk measurement is a can of worms. It doesn’t have the neat ISO units that some people think it ought to have and people have a way of ruining estimates by altering their behaviour. So it often comes out rather qualitative too.

  36. A great discussion! and very useful link to more research too, thanks Tim. I remember well the debates about fences at Elm Vilage and other Camden Play Pathfinder projects I was involved in. We are a long way from cracking parental concerns and engagement in school play and outdoor learning too (and use of tools – another blog topic!) but there are more examples of RBA being used to inform the debate. Thanks all, for a stimulating read on a dull train journey!

  37. Wonderful article and debate! I agree with Helle Nebelong that standard equipment allows kids to stop paying attention, I also think kids start using boring equipment in unintended and sometimes unsafe ways in order to find a challenge. I remember the letters to the editor after this Landscape Architecture magazine came out with a photo of a child on top of a kit’s roof:
    Some of the responses were angry with LAM for highlighting a photo on their cover showing a child using the equipment in an unsafe way, my thought was “what do you expect?” Any other way of play in this environment is boring to any child but the toddler, how do we expect kids to pick outdoor play over video games when this is what we offer?

    From my very limited experience in the U.S., I’ve found that in the concept stage of design, clients are very interested in adventure-type or nature playgrounds, they love photos like the ones you’ve highlighted. But even as we encourage them along, they start to have litigation fears, maintenance fears, and worries that the construction cost for anything custom will be prohibitive. My work focuses more on restoration of sensitive sites, so when a playground is involved it is a pleasant treat until the client pulls out the supplier catalogs. I’d really be interested in hearing from landscape architects or Park managers in the U.S. that have found a way to get past the kit or the concrete log (


  38. Well, well: the website Atlantic Cities has picked up on this post ,and the lively debate it has triggered. Read the piece here.

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  40. Very interesting discussion. Development suffers from the lack of challenge and unique experience. John LaRue hits the nail on the head for the US market sue, sue, sue. It seems we in the US carry things to the extreme. The more “safe” a playground is the less developmental the experience, the more “inclusive and accessible” a playground is, the less challenging or interesting to able bodied kids. More challenge, more litigation.
    Where is the solution.

    • John asks, ‘Where is the solution?’

      Before attempting to answer John’s question, just to establish my own position on this health and safety stuff, in case not known, it can be neatly summarised by saying that Tim, David Ball and myself share a commonality of view, and let people know our views, individually and jointly, with some frequency. So, if they don’t gainsay me, that should be, for the moment at least, sufficient summary of my position.

      I was fortunate to be invited to speak on the question of health and safety, risk etc at last year’s Engaging Our Grounds International Green School Yard Conference in California. It’s quite clear from the numerous projects and people I met in USA, the response to the issue at the conference, and the flow of comment to this blog, that this is a lively issue. But forgive me, America, for saying this, but the levels of frustration I encountered seemed not to be matched by any focused, unified and coherent attempt at organisation to change things, and, probably as a consequence, no real attempt to get ‘under the skin’ of, for example, the legal position, the variation in practice in different state and district jurisdictions and what this might mean; nor any attempt either to become members of Standard setting groupings or authoritatively to challenge their stipulations. Part of my urgings at that conference, was precisely the need to do this.

      The question of Standard bodies formed part of another blog discussion (the impetus coming from a mention about the Disabilities Act (ADA), the Access Board as it might affect play. Rather than go on about that here, the discussion, initiated by Ora Berman, can be found at

      I hope I have not committed the error of trespass into another country’s woes, but my trip, and the people that I met, have led me to feel terribly engaged in this issue. T It seems to me that there is a point where the swapping of tales of woe and exasperation need to translate into what amounts to forms of focused (small ‘p’)political action. On that general point, I have just finished reading ‘Life with Lawyers’, by Philip Howard whom I briefly met when in New York (and who is founder member of Common Good .

      Whether one agrees or not with all the points made, it is to my mind a very useful read – and, happily, has much to say about play, risk, common sense and the need to exercise judgment, with which readers of this blog will almost certainly agree. There is also the suggestion to form risk commissions. I quote (pages 46/47): “Create ‘Risk Commissions’ to offer guidance on where to draw the lines. Legislatures should set up nonpartisan risk commissions to offer guidance to courts and regulators for activities that have been most affected by legal fear, including children’s play and for physical contact with children. These risk commissions should be independent of existing safety agencies, which are dug in too deep see the trade-offs….If legislatures don’t establish these independent risk commissions, then private groups should seize the authority by building broad-based coalitions that assert standards. Common Good, working with health care and child development organisations, has begun the process of creating a playbook of guidance for healthy play.’

      A cursory search of the web did not lead me to anything on the ‘playbook’, but that may simply mean I did not search well enough.

      It may well be that all this is well known, in which I can only apologise for taking up your time. Regards, Bernard

  41. I am not so sure about the notion that children take more risk because there is a safety surface. The evidence shows that children were getting severe injuries and worse when we did not have safety surface. it is an old argument that has been used for bike helmets, etc. There is no evidence to support this.

    • Thanks for your comment Bob. As I said above, I will return to the topic of playground safety. In the meantime: you are wrong when you say there is no evidence to support claims of risk compensation. This academic paper gives empirical support to the claim, in relation to bike helmets.

  42. Great feedback and insights on this important topic. I just referenced the recent piece you co-authored on managing risk and play at a few meetings and will continue to do so with the school admin and parents groups. It’s critical for folks to have an awareness of the unintended consequences our fear, regulations and misunderstandings are creating in regards to what constitutes healthy child’s play. Thank you for continuing to grow this conversation!

  43. As I read, it made me smile to think of the risks that we took as kids visiting family in Germany and of seeing a (German) friend’s son b-day party photos (he was turning 5 or 6 at the time): they visited a Viking “village” and the kids played w/hatchets & bows & arrows, and climbing on the low roofs to hop off. Looked like a great time.
    It also reminded me of a story about golden lion tamarins (tiny primates) from the early ’80’s, I believe. (bear w/me: it does relate to safety & play…) Zoos were breeding them to release into the wild. Back then, they were bred in indoors exhibits w/wood ‘play structures’ that were nice, solid and stable. All was great until the tamarins were released into the wild…they kept falling out of the trees, literally. After investigation, it was determined that they were not accustomed to the branch movement due to wind. Allowing the branches in the captive areas to be ‘loose’ and movable, allowed the tamarins to better adjust to the natural environment.
    Are we at a ‘similar’ place? Stable, overly safe equipment that is “too safe”.

  44. Hi Tim, I really enjoyed this post as many other readers have. I’ve always thought there is a correlation between the KFC approach to playspaces and stultifying, unimaginative play.

    That’s not to say that kids can’t have fun in a KFC environment but what seems to go unaccounted for in the march to uber-safety and the predictable sameness of play structures are the unquantifiable elements of spark and wonder that kids relish and yes, the brush with adrenalin pumping risk. From what I can make out this state of affairs seems to be more prevalent on the North American side of the Atlantic.

    If my 6-year-old lad, or 4 and 2-year old girls were plonked down in any one of the playgrounds featured here, I think the first word out of their mouths would be, ‘awesome’ and I’d be echoing their sentiment.

    I’ve come across a lot of stupendous looking playgrounds in various countries around the world in the couple of years I’ve been writing PlayGroundology. Each time I find one, my hope is renewed that more and more kids will have places to play that fuel their imagination, their creativity and their sense of adventure. Risk can no more be contained than risk taking eliminated.

    We have a new play installation where I live. A local radio station asked if I would speak about it on air. It’s an imaginative design but the station had heard from a number of parents that they felt that the slide was perhaps too high and too steep. Needless to say, that in a super saturated safety environment, everything about the new installation was to code and passed muster. When supervision is needed because of age, size, or ability, there is a responsibility for the parent to be present and to be aware of their child’s limits.

    Thanks for the post. I hope the discussion and debate will continue and reverberate amongst ratepayers, parents, designers and those in local governments responsible for managing budgets allocated to play and playscapes.

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  47. NZ Standard Compensation
    What an amazing conversation, I can’t really keep up with it, but I am interested that no one other than Keith Dalton (I think) has pcked up on the NZ approach to standard compensation.

    Disability and Risk
    I am also interested in Risk and Disability. As Tim says a conversation for another time but. . . . .
    I believe that it is true that disabled children are just as in need of challenge as any other, quite possibly more, that we are all disabled in one way or another (I can’t climb trees, I get virtigo, I am also mildly dislexic), some disabilities end up with greater abilities, like increased upper bhody strength, the answer must be in providing variety from calm contemplative spaces (risk of drowning?) to wildly hectic and challenging spaces. We then surely have to allow children to find their own appropriate space, appropriate not just to ability but mood; perhaps, most importantly, spaces they can share.

    Someone made a point about if there were no deaths, then why are we bothering. My feeling here is that risks that children cannot see are risks that ought to be avoided, otherwise how can they learn about managing them. I probably mean hazards, but I hope you all know what I mean!

    • You mention risk and diasability…You might be interested in an LTL (Learning through Landscapes) publication and DVD “Naturally Inclusive” available via my website where there is a link on the home page to this publication, written my me (landscape architect) and Laura Browning(play and disability specialist). I discovered a huge amount from the children, parents, teacher, carers et al about their attitudes to risk/benefit through my research for this, and their quotes are used throughout.

  48. I survived growing up around Teardrop park. We loved it as kids. Smart kids don’t get hurt at Teardrop, it’s only those who didn’t pay attention or intentionally tried to be dangerous who got hurt.

  49. Excellent and, as others have said, thought provoking. With your permission, I would like to add a link to this blog to the news section of our website ( Hopefully, some of the 1,700 play people using our playground management and inspection app will take notice.

  50. Peter Rosenbluth

    Life is full of risk. Children learn what is safe and not safe by pushing the limits all the time. people who do not do this as children are in danger of serious injury or death as adults because they DID NOT LEARN THIS AS CHILDREN.
    we do a major disservice when we make children’s play so safe that they think everything is safe.
    I played in a open park setting in a city for 10 years or more. i did not get hurt more than a cut or bruise in all those years. we played in “dangerous” places all the time but we had learned to be careful by experience. it was really nice that my parents noticed that i came home dirty and bruised and did NOT ask me where i had been. i was IN THE PARK.
    those are life skills we mus thave,

    • When you get in your car….you put on your seat-belt…god forbid you are in a crash…but of so…seat belts save lives…as a car owner…you expect seat belts to perform. When children are on playground equipment – they expect it’s safe….so things such as eye socket protrusion, head entrapment, entanglements….and falls onto exposed concrete are not there. All we ask is that caution is placed to the wind…and effective surfacing effective guardrails…are used….we learn from research. There are some darn good designers out there that come up with some super cool stuff….there are some that aren’t so good…and put creativity in front of common sense….

      Just my opinion…

      • Of course we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. When we design places for children to play, we should take reasonable steps to make sure they cannot do themselves serious damage. What that involves is – to a degree – a matter of debate (for instance, on the question of surfacing: see my article above the line). But we can agree that play spaces should not include ‘bad risks’ that children themselves cannot appreciate – like structures that could collapse, or high spots where heads can become entrapped.

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  55. What has occurred in recent years is that wooden swing sets now dominate the form.
    Retain in brain that if a swing set is not set together properly, it can be the lead to of accidents
    that may well injure your children. Pretty much everybody enjoys time
    invested outdoors with relatives and close friends and producing a yard pleasurable park will have the youngsters enjoying for hrs outside.

  56. Pingback: Make it Safer. Add Risk. | Sunflower Creative Arts

  57. The perfectionization of playground areas and accessories is meant to render children safe: i.e.: incapable, disabled and in the future oblivious in the areas of assessing danger, facing challenges and encountering difficulties. We are our training our kids to become adults who are fearful, anxious and hovering over their own children – to the point of rendering them even more submissive to life’s vaguerioes than we are. Life is not safe, nor is it regular,nor is it designed to avoid all pit and pratfalls. The concept of safety is endangering both the physical health and sanity of our children and their children. But at least we will feel good being “perfect” parents. . . God bless the creative designers of “iffy” playgrounds. Buty if designers really want to make playgrounds fun again, city bylaws should demand that adults must be kept at least 100 feet away (and this to assure the present and future mental health of our children).

  58. I’m just so pleased that so many “free play thinkers” are contributing to the on-going debate. For reference I do not believe play site designers should be too paranoid about the risk of accidents, indeed I’m quite sure play sites are in essence safer than the road journey required to access the play site itself. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the original “Learning through landscapes” project in 1990, a great deal can still be gleaned from that excellent piece of research. The wheel does not need reinventing!

  59. Shame that so few of the UK playwork fraternity seem to noticed this excellent piece. I missed it at the time. Looking back over Tim’s career, I think, as the saying goes, that I prefer his early work of which this is an example.

    • Thanks Arthur. I’ll take that as a compliment. It’s my most popular post by a stretch (20, 937 views and counting).

      • Just to be clear —because on the internet nobody can see your tongue in your cheek— I’m being playful. and I’m gently satirising you, and less gently admonishing the UK playwork fraternity. So yes, a sort of compliment, but mainly playfulness!

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  62. Tim,
    What are your thoughts on having playgrounds be ADA accessible? I think a lot of what goes into playground standards focuses not only “safety”, but accessibility for all types of children.

  63. A reply to a question on accessibility from Andy which other commentors may also be interested in.
    I think the key question around accessibility and inclusion is not: can children access everything in a play space equally no matter what their ability/disability? It is: can children with a wide range of abilities/disabilities find offers and features that allow them to play in varied, engaging ways? Here in the UK, the legal duties arise from the Disability Discrimination Act. This is broadly framed in terms of ‘reasonable measures’ rather than through notions of compliance. I would support this approach, and would be worried by any move towards further regulation. By contrast, the USA has (I gather) taken a more compliance-driven approach. My sense is that this has led to formulaic play spaces and an excessive emphasis on (for instance) universal wheelchair access. So a focus on compliance and has led away from good design thinking, not towards it.
    There is a tendency for parents and adult stakeholders to think that “good inclusive playground” = “playground with lots of wheelchair-accessible equipment”. This is a variant of the adult tendency to think that “good playground” = “playground with lots of equipment”. This of course fails to recognise the diversity of children who fall under the umbrella term ‘disabled’. It also fails to recognise the contribution that landscape, changes of level, planting, sensory offers, loose materials and routes (amongst other features) make to the overall quality of a play space. In particular, the role of natural materials – plants, sand and water – is undervalued. Of course, equipment has a role in making a rich set of play offers, and it is good to think about the accessibility of equipment. But accessibility is about much more than equipment.
    Finally, location (ie how a space is situated in a neighbourhood) and amenities (parking, toilets, physical access) are crucial in determining accessibility and availability of play spaces – for everyone, but especially for disabled children.
    I am thinking about expanding on these points in a future blog post. In the meantime, I’d welcome feedback and comments.

  64. Tim, I agree, with your comments on inclusive design, and would add too that this is also about being able to play with/include siblings and friends as well. This approach is also what my book “Naturally Inclusive” talks about, with examples and quotes from the children and families themselves about what inclusion means to them. I have a recent example of a project I have been involved in at a special school where the focus has been on the whole experience and whole environment, rather than just access to everything. This is especially important with the range of SEND being catered for and the wish to provide a degree of challenge to the children too. All the children have also been engaged in some ways during construction, through wood carving and designing the detailing as well as doing the planting. This, in my mind, is also what ‘inclusion’ is about as they take great pride in their achievements and contributions to the changes being made.

    • Thanks Felicity – good points!

      • In the US – the ADA is all about MINIMUM standards…certainly – anyone could (and should) – strive for inclusive environments…in the meantime – address (and comply) – at least to the minimums.

        Many years ago – I was having lunch with an individual who was the president of one of the largest advocacy groups for adults with physical disabilities here in the US…I asked…”Denise, what is your definition of an accessible playground”? – Her response (that resonates with me to this day)… “If our child falls down and gets hurt, we want to be able to get to her” (in a wheelchair).


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  76. Japan, and I can speak of Okinawa personally has THE BEST playgrounds! Imaginative, challenging, sturdy, and FUN. They have elevation, speed (roller and drop slides), netting, balance and strength tests, obstacles, zip lines, concrete, steel, ropes…you name it! They are NOT the dumbed down, lowest common denominator, couldn’t- get-hurt-if-you-tried, liability-inoculated snooze fests to which most American kids are now sadly accustomed. I feel extremely lucky I was stationed in Okinawa for 4 of my boy’s formative years (4 to 8 y/o). He is 11 now and still talks about the fun he had there.
    Bottom line: there is so much more thrill and adventure in an activity where there is at least a perceived chance of getting hurt….and the sense of accomplishment when one conquers that fear is palpable!

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  79. The difference lies in the child’s imagination and the interaction between child and nature, with a minimal imprint left by man.Thanks for sharing this blog .

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  81. Pingback: 20 Most Ridiculous, Inappropriate, Bad Playgrounds That Truly Suck! – The Week Ahead

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