The wobbly bridge, or why it is harder to manage risk in playgrounds than factories

Rope bridge in play area“How can we make our playground safe?” It seems a simple enough question. Yet the answer is anything but (and even the question is not as simple as it looks). In fact, managing risk in a playground is much more complex than in a factory or a workplace. The reason for this is down to a fundamental difference in the nature of the task. One way to grasp this difference is to think about a wobbly bridge.

I discuss wobbly bridges in Play and Risk, an information sheet [pdf link] I wrote that has just been published by Play Wales. Here is an extract:

“In a factory or workplace, there would be no good reason to build a bridge that wobbles. If there were such a bridge, it would probably be flagged up in a risk assessment as needing remedial action. Yet in a play context, a wobbly bridge has inherent benefits, even though it may lead to more accidents than a rigid bridge. A wobbly bridge presents a challenge to children: are they steady enough on their feet – and brave enough – to cross it?”

What the wobbly bridge reveals is that in a playground, unlike in a factory or workplace, the presence of some types of hazards – sources of harm – is a good thing. To put it another way, some risks have inherent benefits.

It was the risk management academic Prof David Ball who showed me the value of thinking about wobbly bridges. When I first met David around 2000, he was carrying out a study into playground accidents [pdf link], funded by the Health and Safety Executive. At the same time, I was trying to tackle the problem of the ramping-up of playground safety, in my role as convener of the Play Safety Forum.

In 2002 the Play Safety Forum took the bold step of making balance – not risk reduction – the heart of good risk management, in its groundbreaking position statement Managing Risk in Play Provision. That it did so was thanks in part to David’s research, which showed that playgrounds had for decades been comparatively safe places for children to play. The move was also, in my view, part of a wider reaction to concerns about the over-protection of children.

David and I have since become close collaborators, along with Bernard Spiegal of PLAYLINK. In 2008 the three of us co-wrote Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide, which introduced risk benefit assessment to the play safety world. (A new edition is due out in the coming months.)

More recently David, Bernard and I have teamed up with Harry Harbottle, a playground industry insider who has served his time on playground equipment standards committees and is co-author of a handy guide to the European Standard. Our goal is to create more space for professional judgements about what balance means – what it looks like – in different situations and circumstances. For us, this means rethinking the role and use of playground equipment standards.

Play Wales risk and play coverI plan to explore standards in more detail in my next post. For now, I hope I have shown you just why managing risk in play spaces is different to managing risk in factories – and also hope I have persuaded you of some of the insights to be gained from wobbly bridges.

I will also be saying more about managing risk in play in my keynote at next month’s Spirit of Adventure Play conference in Cardiff.

8 responses to “The wobbly bridge, or why it is harder to manage risk in playgrounds than factories

  1. Really interesting with some great links. May I ‘borrow’ it for my blog?

  2. I think governments and insurers get a bit hysterical when it comes to risk and children. It is so much easier just to eradicate the most obvious risks rather than take a more measured/wider/longer term approach to it.

  3. Pingback: The wobbly bridge revisited, or the problem with playground standards | Rethinking Childhood

  4. Pingback: “Those rocks in that well are too dangerous.” | Rethinking Childhood

  5. Pingback: Play Wales has led the way in championing play – now it needs your help | Rethinking Childhood

  6. 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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