Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology in Norway and one of the world’s leading experts on the importance of playground risk-taking, says a natural playground is “the most challenging environment. It has challenges for all children, all ages, all sizes.”
We believe that it is important to have a good range of play opportunities in a play area with a variety of risk. This helps children decide for themselves how much risk they wish to take.
One thing we should be wary about is creating play environments that are free from risk – risk equates to challenge, and although we do not want to expose our children to real danger, an element of risk is essential in motivating children to engage with the environment. The inherent challenge supports the development of their physical and social skills, and different levels of risk within any play space help broaden the appeal of the area and ensure it delivers the maximum play value possible. Children are continually pushing the boundaries of their development, that is how they learn and how they grow. Whilst you can try and remove any hazards, provide only smooth edges, standardised safety surfacing and regular climbing structures, there is a body of evidence that suggests that this limits the child’s development, does not eradicate accidents and, as children are not having to think about the way they interact with the equipment, can actually cause more serious accidents.
It is intuitive for children to explore their physical limits as part of their development. Without this, for example, they would never learn how to climb stairs. When insufficient risk is provided in a play area they will seek it out, either by going elsewhere, using the existing play area in a way in which it wasn’t intended, or by altering the play area by for example, bringing ropes into it.
We should also remember that children don’t just play in playgrounds, they play everywhere. So when considering risk in play areas we should take reference from the risks we allow children to take outside the play area. For instance, we allow children to walk and play by rivers and beaches with water with strong currents but worry about paddling pools.
The Health and Safety of any play area needs to be given due consideration in order to protect the provider from litigation. The same applies to schools, but it is more likely that schools will be particularly guarded against the threat of a law suit. There are various things that we advise; the setting up of a published play policy, perhaps created in support of a parental consultation. It is very important that the play area and the equipment is well maintained, timbers are checked periodically, water pumps are shut off throughout the winter months and sand is kept clean and animal free. Safety surfaces should be maintained, sand or wood chip topped up to ensure that children are well cushioned in a fall. Working with an experienced play space designer or a play company should ensure that all health and safety standards are met. However, it is important to weigh up the perceived hazards against the possible benefit to the children – a balance should be struck so that the pupils are not missing out on the wonderful play opportunities afforded by innovative and exciting play spaces as a result of a perceived low level risk.
“Consider the difference between swinging on monkey bars and climbing a tree” Prof. Ellen Sandseter says.
“The bars in climbing equipment have a certain centimetre distance between them and it’s not really challenging. They could be blindfolded and climb it,” she says. “But in a tree, there’s different distances between branches. You have to feel the branches [to know if it will support you]. You have to constantly take a lot of risk decisions and evaluate your environment… It’s no doubt nature environments are better in every way.”