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, 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 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.
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
 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 . 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?