Play equipment standards: occasions of trespass

In this article Bernard Spiegal discusses the role, scope and authority of play equipment standards.  The article is one of a number of papers, comments, blogs, presentations and articles being generated by members of The York Group.

The York Group, comprising  Professor David Ball, Tim Gill, Harry Harbottle, Bernard Spiegal, has come together to contribute to thinking about risk and play equipment Standards.   The York Group will also be publishing jointly authored papers.

Responsibility for the views expressed in this article is the author’s.   The article does, however, introduce some key lines of argument for the group, to be explored further in both its individual and joint papers.

Standards: the strong distinction

The overarching purpose of this article is to initiate a process of emancipation.  To liberate occupied territory – the too large terrain that play equipment standards occupy – thereby freeing play providers to make their own judgments about where, in their provision[1], the balance between risk and benefit lies.

In what follows I want first to establish what I shall call a ‘strong distinction’, one that marks clearly conceptual distinctions in respect of the role, scope and authority of play equipment standards.  These distinctions have for too long been allowed to remain blurred and confused.

To help break through the confusions generated by the very existence of play equipment standards – to clear the ground –it will be useful to explicate some first principles.   This, it is hoped, will contribute to stimulating a more informed discussion about play equipment standards and the territory they should be permitted to inhabit.

The metaphor of ‘territory’ is a useful way of characterising the sort of issues that need to be addressed.   It is the contention of this article that, currently, play equipment standards occupy too large an extent of territory; they trespass on, or colonise, areas where they have no right to be.   Once that is in principle accepted, and the premise is argued below, the process of decolonisation can begin.

As with so many processes of decolonisation, there are arguments to be had as to where precisely the line of the new border should be drawn.  But before that discussion can take place, there needs first to be an acceptance of the premise:  that is, that the territory currently occupied by play equipment standards is too extensive, and therefore to a significant degree occupied illegitimately.

To be clear: my position is not that playground equipment standards are unnecessary, but that they have been allowed to expand into areas beyond the scope of their competence.   Put simply, we need to better distinguish between those aspects of playground equipment standards that legitimately fall within the scope of technical-cum-engineering expertise, and those that do not.   That latter region, where technical-cum-engineering expertise should hold no sway, is the area where locally determined, value-based judgments should have sole jurisdiction.

Currently, Standards and the process of Standard-making mark no such distinction.  Instead two distinct territories, the one concerned with objective, technical information and assessment, the other, with subjective, value-based judgments, are treated as one unified field of knowledge and decision-making.   This has had a deadening effect on the decision-making capacity of play providers, undermining their confidence and ability to make informed value-based judgments about what is good for children and teenagers.  Play providers have in effect ceded, or been persuaded to cede, their authority to make value-based decisions about their play provision to forms of technical expertise that should remain silent in the matter.

This ‘ceding of authority’ raises political and ethical  questions about how and why public and publicly funded bodies with responsibilities for the health and welfare of children and teenagers have so easily succumbed, certainly in jurisdictions where Standards are not mandatory, the UK for instance, to what appears to be unforced compliance.  But, for the moment, that question will be left dangling, to be pursued at a later date.

This article, then, is primarily a conceptual enquiry.  I therefore do not look at key aspects of play equipment Standards and Standard-making that inform and reinforce doubts about their authority and utility.  To name some of these areas without here delving into them further:  the motivation for having Standards at all are significantly motivated by an economic ideology that seeks to promote free trade areas in goods and services and market harmonisation. Standardisation helps equalise market conditions between countries and this has nothing to do with ideas about ‘safety; the ‘science’ said to be informing Standards is open to interpretation and questioning, this applies also to the way statistics are deployed.     These and other issues will be addressed both by co-authored papers and presentations by the York Group, and in individual contributions.   The Risk It! conference (London, 23 October 2012. See www.playlink.org.uk)  will be looking at these issues, amongst others.

Mapping the territory

Broadly characterised, play equipment standards should confine themselves to matters that require what might be called ‘technical-cum-engineering’ expertise.   A play equipment standard should direct its attention, and limit its pronouncements, to matters such as, for example, recommending: the tensile strength of metal when used in play equipment platforms;  specifying how deep the foundations should be for ‘x’, ‘y’ or ‘z’ piece of equipment;  determining  the appropriate length and strength of an unsupported cross beam.   In other words, the Standard’s domain should not extend beyond that area where objective[2] facts rightly claim sovereignty.  We might say that a play equipment standard should do exactly what it says:  address the detail of equipment specification and leave the more complex, nuanced and value-saturated considerations about what, in any particular case, constitutes ‘an acceptable level of risk’ to play providers themselves.

The approach outlined above would mean that the Standard would no longer have a ‘standard’ view about, for example, fall heights, safety surfacing, minimum space round equipment.   The Standard should withdraw from matters that require, as foundational, views about the utility of risk, and the need for children and teenagers to be exposed to acceptable levels of risk.  What constitutes an ‘acceptable level of risk’ and what that might mean in each particular case is a matter for local and locally-informed policy-based decision-making.  In other words, it is territory to be occupied by the play provider aided and informed by the narrative risk-benefit assessment process.   Part of the argument here is that how children and teenagers play in any particular setting and at any particular time is infinitely variable.  How play is understood, and the value attributed to its protean forms of expression is not an engineering, technical matter.

 Common sense

Judgments about what constitutes an ‘acceptable level of risk’ and what is permissible or desirable behaviour in any particular situation do not admit of objective, certain answer.    And the reason for this is that answers will emerge from the interplay between individual, community and societal values, understandings and beliefs.  The sort of considerations that come into play here include:  views about children and teenagers’ competence; the potential utility or otherwise of some injuries; the benefits, or otherwise, of risk-taking.   The judgments made here are mediated through, and find life in, accumulated practical experience.

This value-saturated, accumulated practical experience might be one useful, though by no means comprehensive, way of characterising ‘common sense’.   It is experience-based knowledge that is drawn from, feeds into, and is tested in everyday life.   Two aspects of this knowledge base have particular salience.  One is our capacity to observe what children and teenagers actually do and how they judge, negotiate and respond to different situations that they find or put themselves in.  The other aspect is that every adult has, by definition, intimate, personal experience of being a child and knows – knows from the inside – something about the capabilities, interests, likes and dislikes of children and teenagers.

‘Common sense’ judgments are not unassailable, they are open to challenge, and one person’s common sense is often not the same as another’s.   This poses no in principle problem.  Attitudes to children, teenagers, their play, indeed to wider questions about the meaning and status of childhood and adolescence, are proper subjects of debate and contention within society.   What counts here is that these types of question matter sufficiently to be the focus of our attention.  At base, this is the stuff of politics and ethics, outside the purview of technical-cum-engineering stipulations and certainly beyond the scope of any Standard.  The sort of knowledge described here is not susceptible to standardisation.

Strong and mediated distinction

In the introduction to this article I suggested that a necessary first move was to establish a ‘strong distinction’, that between the area play equipment standards could legitimately inhabit, and the area where they are guilty of trespass.   I have characterised the distinction as, on the one hand, technical-cum-engineering information which is legitimately within the Standards’ purview; and on the other, those matters where value-saturated judgments need to hold sway.

It is recognised, however, that there are grey areas where it is open to argument as to which side of any proposed border a particular aspect of play provisions might lie.   Examples might include what the Standard call finger and head traps.  Should there be a standard in respect of either or both, and if so should it be in its present form?   I do not know.  And no doubt there are other aspects of play equipment standards where wider discussion will assist in the drawing of the best possible boundary between the two territories described above.   But first it needs to be recognised that there are two territories, and one is illegitimately occupied.

Play equipment inspections

The next article will consider the role and authority of play provision inspections.   By way of preview, it will be argued that the current absence of distinction between what is properly within the competence of industry equipment standards, and what it beyond their scope, is mirrored in the rationale and practice of play provision inspections.  As a consequence, both the rationale and practice of play equipment inspections must be open to question.

This article is also posted at www.playlink.org.uk

Bernard Spiegal, 24 September 2012


[1] I mean here each individual play area and playable space recognising that the risk-benefit balance to be struck in each individual case might be different .[2] It is understood that values and judgment play a part in even these technical considerations, for example, it is a judgment as to the degree of tolerance one allows in tensile strength. Should it be able to take the weight of ten children or ten hundred?

5 responses to “Play equipment standards: occasions of trespass

  1. Pingback: Standards, regulations, guidelines and the muted voice | Bernard Spiegal

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

  3. Dear Ian, first, thanks for your full response to the article. In terms of the straightforward questions you ask the answers are, yes’, I am trying, with colleagues, to start a debate. (There are others that take a critical view of Standards, for one reason or another but, so far as I’m aware, a debate – still less change – has not in fact occurred.)

    And ‘yes’, I want to limit the scope of the Standard, and create more ‘space’ for decision-making by the play provider – the dutyholder. If I’ve understood the rider to your second question, yes, I am concerned about all provision – whether using manufactured equipment or other means to create play opportunities. I think it is the play provision provider that should make key judgments about what constitutes an acceptable level of risk and the steps they should take to achieve that level.

    I’ll try now to address your point: would I like to see the, ‘standard that only relates to quantifiable factors that relate specifically to the safety of the equipment’ and your linked point that some of the areas which I suggest should not be subject to the standard are indeed quantifiable. I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding here (assuming that I have taken the point correctly).

    Part of the problem, if I read you right, is that you appear to characterise ‘subjective’ as being opposed to ‘quantifiable’. But this seems to me to muddle categories. The attributes of subjectivity do not stand in opposition to quantification.

    It is certainly the case that there is data available from test houses from various tests on potential impact damage at various fall heights on to various surfaces undertaken, I suspect, in laboratory conditions. Let us assume that the data is correct for the conditions in which the tests were undertaken. (This itself points to questions about the degree and scope of applicability of these tests to real-world situations) But what counts here is not whether the data is itself objective, it is. What counts is how it is interpreted, the ‘meaning’ that is accorded the data in the context of wider, value-saturated (to self-quote, bad habit!), understandings and objectives. And these need to encompass, but are not limited to:
    • views about the utility of real risk, in this case in play;
    • understandings about ‘risk compensation’ which suggests that offering more ‘safety’ – dangerous word, safety, that I tend to avoid using – actually increases people’s propensity to take higher levels of risk;
    • making judgments about what constitutes a serious injury, and to what degree should we – society – strive to minimise or reduce potential exposure to non-serious injury;
    • considering whether and to what degree the goal of injury reduction (let us say this is a health service goal)is compatible with the goal of creating the conditions whereby children can learn about themselves and their world through experience (play provision objective).

    None of the above questions are ones that can be answered simply by reference to objective data. The underlying question here is asking, ‘what do we think is beneficial for children and teenagers?’. And the type of answer that will be given will be in terms of a risk-benefit trade off, a judgment to be made about where the balance between risk and benefit is to be struck. There is no objective answer to questions of this sort. And certainly what constitutes a ‘benefit’ is a moral, political, social question – not one to be answered by recourse to engineering standards.

    You may be interested in a piece of research, in fact commissioned by the HSE and on their web site. It is ‘Playgrounds – risks, benefits and choices’ by Professor David Ball. It’s at http://eprints.mdx.ac.uk/4990/1/crr02426.pdf. One area that the report covers is that of playground surfacing. It makes interesting reading and raises fundamental questions about the way play provision is approached, especially in regard to issues of risk and ‘safety’.

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  4. Thanks for posting this it has been most informative, I have a few queries / comments about what has been written mainly so that I can get things clear in my mind.
    I manage a test facility for sports, leisure and play equipment which means that I have regular dealings with British, European and other international standards. I also have dealings with the development of standards and research / develop new test methods for inclusion in standards and for sports governing bodies. That said my background is actually in civil engineering working for 20 odd years on highway and rail projects so I think I give a fresh pair of eyes to the industry I now work in.
    First thing I would like to ask is what are you trying to achieve with this article? Are you trying to start a debate about the merits of the standards in question in the hope that one day there will be less restriction?
    From my understanding of what I have read here, you would like to see the stripping out of areas in the standard that should be left to the judgement of the play facilities design team. Is that correct? And do your concerns only relate to play facilities or the equipment that they contain as well or do you see it all as one?
    Sorry for all the questions I just want to get a fuller idea of what you have written. To carry on …
    What you would like to see is a standard that only relates to quantifiable factors that relate specifically to the safety of the equipment and its use, which I am very much inclined to agree with. What I am struggling with is some of the areas of the equipemnts design that you have mentioned that you would consider to be subjective. For example you mention fall height and surfacing, both of which I would consider to be quantifiable rather than subjective. To my knowledge there is data available relating to the kinds of forces required to break bone (or worse), you can calculate the impact forces of a human falling from any height and striking a hard surface. It is therefore reasonable to assume that to avoid serious injury or death you can calculate a safe falling height and the thickness and type of materials required to cushion the impact. These are not subjective figures.
    Now I’m not saying there aren’t subjective AND potentially restrictive areas of the standard such as checking for unforeseen dangers but whether these are included in the standard or not they will always be subjective and down to the whims of the person designing, checking and inspecting the equipment. But, by including more than one person or set of people in the design of the equipment, it is possible to find a middle ground.
    Currently I am working closely with a manufacturer and a registered inspector to improve a range of the manufacturer’s equipment whilst working within the requirements set out in the standards you mention. This gives the manufacturer the distinct advantage of being able to reassure their clients that they have taken every care to make their equipement as safe as possible. The partnership works well because it brings to the table three elements, someone to check that the technical specification of the standards is met, that the subjective safety requirements are met and that the play, fun and risk elements are still there.

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  5. I look forward to more good stuff from you guys.

    Best wishes
    Arthur

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