Managing risks in play environments is a complicated task. It is quite different to risk management in other contexts like factories or workplaces. In such places, hazards – things that can potentially cause harm – rarely have any inherent benefits. Hence risk management focuses solely on the need to introduce control measures that reduce the risk of harm to an acceptable level. But in a play context, exposure to some risks is itself a benefit.
Take for example a wobbly footbridge, of the kind that may be found on a children’s play area. 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?
So in play environments, it is crucial to allow for a degree of risk. The Welsh Government Play Sufficiency Toolkit (2012) states: ‘children need to feel free to experience risk and challenge of their own volition and they will only be able to do this if we allow some degree of uncertainty to remain.’
This needs to incorporate some risk in play environments is all the more important because of wider changes in children’s everyday lives. The last few decades have seen a decline in the time that children spend playing and getting around out of doors independently. The reasons for this decline are complex and a matter of debate. But many people agree that as a result, children have less opportunity to encounter and learn how to manage risks by themselves. Giving children managed opportunities to take risks is a way of compensating them for this loss of wider freedom. Judith Hackitt, Chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said: ‘play outdoors teaches young people how to deal with risk and without this they are ill equipped to deal with working life.’
There is growing debate about the value of allowing children to deal with risks, and about the dangers of overprotection. However, this should not lead us to think that we abandon children to the fates. We still have a duty of care to keep children reasonably safe, and this duty is reflected in the legal framework.
Hence at the heart of managing risk in play is a balancing act between opportunities for free play, and regard for wellbeing – or to put it another way, between risk and safety. The Welsh Government Play Policy Implementation Plan (2006) makes it clear that this needs ‘a balanced judgement of risk.’
A balanced approach is needed, whether thinking about public play areas, school or nursery grounds, adventure playgrounds, parks and public spaces or a back garden – indeed any environment where it may be reasonable to expect children to play.