Reforming play equipment and surfacing Standards: a few thoughts

I think it fair to say that within the broad community of play advocates – play designers, landscape architects, play provision providers, pedagogues – play equipment and surfacing Standards have not been a hot topic of debate or contention. For some they were, and continue to be, a form of assurance as to the ‘safety’ of a product; and, in addition, they may even be taken as a proxy indicator of that quasi-mystical quality: play value.

For others, Standards in their current form are a source of bemusement, if not irritation, seen as impeding the possibility of creating rich and varied play environments.

But what this diverse constituency  has in common,  is the shared sense that play equipment and surface Standards descend as from on high, are created via processes and people they know not, but whose pronouncements  have the force and authority of Holy Writ, to be adhered to, but not questioned.

That was then. Now is now.  

‘Now’ is marked by the steady growth, and the coming together, of a diverse  constituency of pedagogues, play advocates, academics, designers, individuals from within Standard-making bodies, all seized of the need to examine Standards, how they are formulated, who formulates them, their scope and their practical consequences ‘on the ground’.   And this constituency is growing.

The direction of travel is towards change, towards reform. What these changes might in detail be, the nature of reforms to be proposed, have yet to be fully formulated, and will certainly require wide-ranging debate.  But the status quo seems to me to be increasingly not an option.

I thought, therefore, it might be helpful if I offer my perspective on some principles and first order considerations that could contribute to the process of thinking about what reform might look like.  I hope to keep away from too much detail accepting, of course, that there the devil lies.

Some of the points below emerged, were stimulated by, discussions within the York Group[1] and found expression in:   Children’s Play Space and Safety Management: Rethinking the Role of Play Equipment Standards. However, it is not suggested that everything that follows represents the position of that Group. My musings are my responsibility alone.

Scope of play equipment and surfacing Standards

Currently play equipment and surfacing Standards range extremely wide, covering two distinct areas:

One: items or matters susceptible to objective, consistent specification, and testable (measurable) as such.  Here are included, for example, the tensile strength of platforms, the depth required for a structure’s foundations – basically, matters that are concerned with the structural integrity of equipment.

Two: stipulations that are value-based, are in essence addressing the question ‘what constitutes an acceptable level of risk’.  Included are, for example, fall heights, falling space and impact absorbing surfacing (IAS).  The Standard here and in related matters attempts to provide a one-size-fits-all set of stipulations by insisting on what amounts to an engineering  response  to children and teenagers infinitely variable  and unpredictable behavior.  It implicitly presupposes a Standard Child with Standard Judgments and Responses to situations.   The straying of Standards into this territory seems to be suggesting that children and teenagers have no or extremely limited risk assessment capabilities of their their own.  (In conceptual terms, there is perhaps a parallel to be drawn between Standards’ thinking that looks to engineering – over-engineering? –  in an attempt to reduce risk on playgrounds and Hans Monderman ‘shared surfaces’ approach to road/pavement design which is predicated on creating the conditions for better, more alert individual decision making both by vehicle drivers and pedestrians).

The contention is that the first area is properly the business of Standards. They are in principle needed in this objective, essentially engineering realm.

However, in respect of the second area, Standards have strayed into territory not properly their own.  The second category covers those areas that should be addressed locally by means of Risk-Benefit Assessment undertaken by the duty-holder.

Who decides Standards?

Currently, Standard making bodies are dominated by the play equipment and surfacing industry. A key purpose of Standard-making bodies is to ‘harmonise’ Standards across nations and jurisdictions in order to lower the barriers to free trade.  It is important to note this political-economic aspect for it provides both the motive and momentum for Standards to flow from one jurisdiction to another.

Standards are an international matter which is why I, and others, have been urging not only a local, intra-national engagement with the issue, but an international one as well.  There has been some positive and very welcome movement here.

Even in these straitened times, significant amounts of public money are spent on play equipment and playground IAS surfacing.  It cannot be right that an industry dominated body devises for itself the Standards it will adhere to. Almost without exception, any change to a Standard will require a public expenditure outlay – or the closing or curtailment of at least some play provision where such funds are not available.

In respect of play equipment and surfacing standards, there is an inversion of the proper order and structure of decision-making.  Authority is wrongly located.

Play and its provision is pre-eminently a civil society matter, an aspect of deciding what constitutes the public good.  This is not an area of decision-making that can rightly be sequestered within an enclave of sectional interest.

Matters need to be turned the right way up: civil society bodies should be the final arbiters of what Standards should apply, be amended, be abolished. This would require, for instance, that play and pedagogical organisations would be key, and majority, members of Standard-making committees[2].  And they would need to adhere to a rational and proportionate decision-making process.  The sort of process that Standrd-making bodies have yet to embrace, though there are voices within those bodies championing change.

Rationale and proportionate

It happens that a rationale and proportionate decision-making process has been proposed by a number of people and bodies, not least the UK Play Safety Forum.  However, I quote from the International School Grounds Alliance’s (ISGA) letter to ASTM when voicing its objection to the proposal to lower the HIC threshold value for playground surfacing from HIC1000 to HIC700 (a proposal recently defeated for a third time).  The points made in the letter are generally applicable to determining the merits or otherwise of any proposal to introduce or amend a Standard.  The call was for a proper, impartial, publicly available review to include:

  • a clear statement of aims of the measure / intervention
  • the scientific evidence
  • an account of the financial costs of the measure and who would bear them
  • a comprehensive risk-benefit analysis including consideration of wider implications e.g. effects on play value, health and wellbeing of children and the probable effects on the amount of play provision.

In essence, what was demanded was a Risk-Benefit Assessment of any proposed measure.

One possible, beneficial consequence of change

Underpinning almost all the points made above is the centrality of Risk-Benefit Assessment as the process for determining what constitutes an acceptable level of risk.  Now, consider this: certainly in the lower courts (in the UK), in respect of negligence claims arising out of accidents within play provision, the courts often look to whether Standards have been adhered to as a significant factor in determining the validity of a claim.  The test becomes one of compliance to the Standard, not on the reasonableness (or otherwise) of the risk level and its acceptability/non-acceptability in respect value-based policy goals.

As I suggested in a previous post, with Standards confined to a more limited territory, the courts would no longer be able to rely on them as a form of assurance beyond the matters where it is proposed they have authority. This represents a potentially seismic change in the way courts will have to look at negligence cases in play provision.  For the courts, now no longer able lazily to reach for a Standard as the basis for a verdict (save where the integrity of the equipment is the issue), the focus will have to shift to the play provider’s judgment-based, risk-benefit assessment.

Marginal no longer

Last time I looked, the UK play equipment and playground surfacing industry was worth between £170m – £200m.  Overwhelmingly, that money is spent under the aegis of playground and surfacing Standards.  The message of this post, and indeed others, is that a significant amount of that money is ill-spent, not in spite of, but because of, the assumed need to adhere to Standards (in the UK they are in fact non-mandatory).

I think in the next post I will take up again a topic I  had said I would tackle, but I mislaid my own intention and have instead offered what you have read above.  That mislaid topic was the way some – I hazard it may be more than that –  practitioners have, so to speak, internalised their own oppression and succumbed to treating as mandatory the play equipment and surfacing Standards (non-mandatory in the UK) , in effect abiding by norms that they rationally disavow. 

[1] Professor David Ball, Harry Harbottle, Tim Gill, Bernard Spiegal

[2] As it happens, once Standard-making bodies limit themselves to addressing only matters that affect the integrity of equipment, then one can imagine a lighter touch involvement by civil society whilst still maintaining its role as final arbiters on Standards.

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