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.

It is a truth not universally acknowledged that guidance (or handbooks), especially perhaps  those concerned with play, that have the word ‘safe’ in the title and in the wider text, carry with it the significant risk of falling into, and promoting, error.  Thus the turbo-charged thrust of the Handbook’s purpose is to minimise injuries in playgrounds, an objective that, taken as a primary objective, at once obliterates the possibility of developing a rounded approach to children and teenagers need and desire to play, to encounter – and create – risks.In what I imagine the Handbook’s audience is to take as justification for the strictures of the publication, some injury statistics are quoted thus:

‘The U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has long recognized the potential hazards that exist with the use of playground equipment, with over 200,000 estimated emergency room-treated injuries annually. The most recent study of 2,691 playground equipment-related incidents reported to the CPSC from 2001-2008 indicated that falls are the most common hazard pattern (44% of injuries)…’

These raw ’emergency-room treated injuries annually’ figures do not in fact tell us a great deal.  Some of things not told include:

  • What were the different injuries and what were the levels of severity (this begs another question – see below)?
  • What is percentage of injury in relation to playground usage (i.e. the playground area as a whole) and the percentage of injury in relation to play equipment usage specifically?
  • What is the percentage of injury in relation to what playground equipment manufacturers might call ‘intended use’, as distinct from percentage of injury in relation to kids freely-chosen, creative, equipment-manufacturer-non-intended-use; that is, kids doing things that are beyond the scope of standards to either curtail or control, for example, walking up the slide part of a slide.
  • and how many children/teenagers went to the emergency room, were checked out and simply went home, or back to play, with minimal or no medical treatment?

But the key unasked, un-regarded, questions begging for response are:

  • what is taken to be a serious injury?
  • what is a non-serious injury?
  • what level of injury is acceptable given the activity is thought to be beneficial for the person undertaking it?

The problem of the Handbook is that its underpinning, hazard-based, risk minimisation ‘world view’ is antithetical to the task of creating best possible play opportunities and all the learning and developmental benefits free play stimulates.

As with play equipment standards in other jurisdictions, not least the UK and Europe, what seems to be missing is any sense that they were drawn up with an understanding of children, their competencies, and their need and desire to encounter and create risk.

It is the case that standards and handbooks make phrasal nods towards a more expansive view about what play might entail, but this is belied by the detailed stipulations to be found in standards and the Public Playground Safety Handbook.  Many of the requirements appear to be founded on an essentially negative, not to say bleak, assessment of children, childhood and play.  Thus the handbook says that children are to be overseen when at play pretty well all the time.  But what may make sense in terms of one year olds, pales into a particularly barren view of children if this guidance/stipulation is inflicted on, say, eight year olds.

Age ranges are to be kept separated: once again, this may be relevant for a three month old playing in the same spot as a fourteen year old – stress, ‘may’; that ‘may’ referring to the fact that each situation and location is particular to itself – but not if between five and eight year olds.

Part of what’s going on here is lucidly discussed in Philip K Howard’s, ‘The death of common sense’[1] in which he makes general points about how excessive and detailed regulation negates the possibility of responsive, situation sensitive decision-making by real people ‘on the ground’ as they confront the infinite variability of real-time human activity.   That is to say, real life, real-time activity – as in a playground – is not susceptible to standardisation.  In Common Good’s Issue Brief, ‘Regulatory Overhaul’, by Philip K Howard, this salient point is made about regulation that has lost its way:

‘Rigidity. Today, regulation often emphasizes rule compliance above achieving desired outcomes. As a result, common sense goes out the window’

This suggests that we need to become more confident to make decisions in relation to broad based principles, rather than relying on rule books and standards to provide the false sense of comfort of ‘reading off’ notionally appropriate answers to the questions real life throws at us.   A critique of standards, therefore,  invites us to also raise fundamental questions about the nature of decision-making, the scope and limitations of expertise; what is, and who has, ‘common sense’ – what is entailed in the idea of making a judgment.    And this is intimately connected to ideas about trust – what is it to have, and what is entailed, in the idea of trust-based relationships.

More about Standards can be found in my first three blogs.  I make clear there that I am not against standards as such, it is simply that have exceeded the boundaries of their competence.  They are also emblems of the exercise of unwarranted, sectional power and interests.

Equally, I am not against play equipment as such – to hold such a position strikes me as absurd – but believe that manufactured play equipment has played too dominant a part when thinking about what makes a good play environment.   Tim Gill at Rethinking Childhood also questions standards as they are currently formulated.

There is more to be said on all this, and I and others will be returning to the subject.  In the meantime, some of this blog’s USA readers will know that I have suggested that a little more close attention to words and their meanings will help us tease out the logic of our position so far as risk and play is concerned.  Here, then, is an abridged version of a ‘dictionary’  piece I wrote some years ago. Wry amusement permitted:

Resilience  (Chambers Dictionary: ‘recoil, elasticity, physical or mental’).  That is, the capacity to bounce back after difficulty, after hurt, after ‘negative’ experience.  You cannot become resilient in the absence of something to be resilient about.  What follows from this?  It is that accidents, cuts, bruises and broken arms or legs are not necessarily bad, they may be the outcome of activities that are of significant benefit.  Policy directed simply at the reduction of risk is potentially damaging to children.

Challenge (Chambers Dictionary: ‘to test one’s powers and capabilities to the full’) That is, to push against boundaries (physical and mental); to be thwarted; to try again; to fail; to be resilient in response to difficulty.

Put a good, brave face on (it) (Chambers Dictionary: ‘to assume a bold or contented bearing’)  See resilience and challenge.

Accidents (Chambers Dictionary: ‘that which happens’)  Sometimes painful, most usually the cause of no lasting harm.  The inevitability and utility of accidents not generally acknowledged.    Obsessive attempts to reduce or prevent accidents logically inconsistent with policy goal of nurturing resilience and ‘stretching’ children through challenge (see above).

Experience (Chambers Dictionary: ‘wisdom derived from the changes and trials of life’)  Generally understood as the necessary, inevitable, unavoidable vehicle for developing qualities of, for example, self-confidence, resilience, curiosity.   Those qualities generally understood as un-teachable, the focus being on creating the context within which those qualities might be nurtured.

Learning through experience (Chambers Dictionary: no entry) Learning and ‘wisdom derived from the changes and trials of life’.  These experiences include, but are not limited to,  climbing  higher today than yesterday; having an argument and resolving or not resolving it; falling over and discovering that pain generally passes and can in any case be overcome.

Risk (Chambers Dictionary: ‘chance of loss or injury’)  Logically, prior to having a new experience, you cannot know how you will respond to that experience.  The moment prior to having a particular experience – for example, climbing  higher today than yesterday; having an argument and resolving or not resolving it; falling over and discovering that pain generally passes and can in any case be overcome –  is, therefore, by definition, a risky moment .  It follows that if you aim to nurture self-confident, resilient children who respond to, set themselves and overcome challenges, risk needs to be embraced, provided for, not avoided or always minimised.

What constitutes an ‘acceptable level of risk’ is another question.  In general terms, an acceptable level of risk is one that opens the door to the benefits of having a range of experiences whilst aiming to avoid creating situations likely to lead to permanent disabling injury or death.


[1] Published by Random House

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