Monthly Archives: May 2013

Standards, regulations, guidelines and the muted voice

The recent visit to San Francisco/Berkeley gave me the opportunity to meet with like-minded and partially-like-minded people.    One issue in particular kept coming up and that is the way people felt hemmed in by standards, regulations, and notionally non-mandatory guidelines that in practice were treated as formal requirements .

This disaffection was not restricted to those responsible for play provision, but  was felt more widely.  If I had to sum up the general feeling as I encountered it, it is this: that in the USA the tendency was to over-prescribe the detail  of what may or may not be done in too many areas of endeavour.  The paradoxical effect  of this is to undermine the capacity of duty holders (I use the term loosely here to identify all those who have a formal role in decision-making, whether as professional or volunteer) to make informed judgments in the light of their ‘reading’ of the always particular, changing, situation-specific circumstances that they confront.  Instead of being able to exercise judgment, the pressure was to act as mechanicals, to follow a sort of universal script deemed to be suitable for all occasions.  In an odd, paradoxical  sort of way, the scripts – standards, regulations, guidelines – seemingly written to enhance best possible action and outcome in the real world, end up being other-worldly, conjuring the fiction that messy reality can be engineered into a pre-formed, one-size-fits-all template. Continue reading

Schools grounds: the peculiar status of school grounds (2)

I wrote recently about the peculiar UK notion that school grounds should  be sequestered, fenced or walled enclaves effectively unavailable for easy use by the school’s local community.  The fact that school grounds are sometimes used for planned and organised ‘community’ events does nothing to weaken the points I sought to make.

Particularly in areas where general park or open space is limited, this barricading against wider community use seems particularly ill-judged.  Other countries manage things differently, Sweden for one, and parts – I do not have full information – of the USA, certainly.

Photos by Sharon Danks, Bay Tree Design

Photos by Sharon Danks, Bay Tree Design

I happen to be  in Berkeley, California, at the moment, and here some school at least have a more open policy.   The pictures are of the signs at the boundaries marking the dividing line between school and park;  park and street.  The park section is used by the school during school time, and is open to the wider community at all other times.  It takes but a minute’s thought to appreciate that the ‘rest of  the time’, is quite substantial: after school, weekends, school holidays.


The signs raise questions, for example, why is the park closed when kids are in school time? ‘Stranger danger’, I hear you say. Well, perhaps that’s a valid reason. Or perhaps that reason is freighted with assumptions that it is time to challenge.  But that is not the point of this short piece.  My aim is simply to share with you the signs, and what they bespeak. 

American musings: Handbooks, standards, and over-regulation

I thought I’d give this blog an American slant since I’m here in the San Francisco area talking about, well, risk, standards, parks, (over) anxious parents – that sort of thing.  

I’m here courtesy of the efforts of Lisa Howard and Sharon Danks, both of Bay Tree Design and the International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA), a grouping that is slowly extending its reach and gathering its strength.  Long in the preparation, and cooked slow for added succulence, the developing international alliance draws on, and contributes to, the expanding knowledge-base – both theoretical and practical – of the benefits and challenges involved in greening school grounds.  A  key component of its belief system is that school grounds are for the community as a whole, and not to be treated as sequestered enclaves for school use alone.   (PLAYLINK declares an interest here, it is one of the founder members, but credit for ISGA’s  conception and its activities, belong elsewhere).

Public Playground Safety Handbook

In preparation for this trip, I took a look at the what appears to be the bible for American playgrounds, the ‘Public Playground Safety Handbook’, published by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  Here in California it is effectively mandatory to adhere to its provisions for all projects involving public money –  this effectively captures, for example, most schools, parks and public playgrounds.

Sophisticated readers, and adepts in the language of play and risk, will almost certainly have given an  involuntary start on seeing the word ‘safety’ in the handbook’s title.

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