Managing risk and challenge in playgrounds - Education Matters Magazine
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Managing risk and challenge in playgrounds

Mary Jeavons, Director of Jeavons Landscape Architects, highlights the importance for children to actively play outdoors at school, and discusses how play equipment can be designed and managed to benefit children as they learn to manage risks in their environment.

For children, outdoor play is an important part of the school day. As today’s children spend more time indoors, and sedentary, schools remain one of the key settings where children are still likely to play outside. Some studies link a lack of outdoor play opportunities to poor health and learning outcomes for children of any age.

Not all play involves risk taking, but there are positive benefits of risky play. Paradoxically, there is a possibility that children exposed to too little challenge may take inappropriate risks, where the chance of injury is high, because they lack the ability to judge risk levels and lack skills to tackle it.

A 2015 systematic review of 18 separate studies on risky outdoor play (i.e. thrilling, exciting and with the possibility of injury) found this type of play to be associated with positive effects on a range of health indicators, including social health and behaviours, injuries and lower aggression.

Playground injuries
School grounds are busy places so unfortunately it’s inevitable that some childhood injuries will occur at school. There have been several dramatic reports in the press about the dangers of playgrounds but this is not a reason for schools to panic or deny children important outdoor activities.

Keep in mind that many injuries labelled as school playground injuries are not really related to actual play equipment, or necessarily caused by equipment design. There are plenty of other causes of injury in school grounds or anywhere outdoors in schools, including collisions, sports injuries, slips on surfaces, and falling down stairs. Accurate definitions and good data collection are needed to provide a clearer picture.

Australian standards for playground equipment and surfacing
Playground Equipment Standards govern the provision of play equipment in schools, public play spaces and supervised early childhood centres across Australia. State and Territory Education Departments also have their own requirements too. Schools need to purchase equipment that complies with these.

The main objective of these documents is to reduce the frequency and severity of injuries. Elimination of injury is considered unrealistic and Standards are not designed to prevent cuts, bruises or broken bones.

Risk benefits
Playground Equipment Standards identify various categories of hazards. While some hazards have no play value or benefit to children and need to be removed from playgrounds, such as entrapments, strangulation, sharp protrusions and crush points; other hazards do offer benefits in the form of challenging experiences, types of movement and heights. These need to be managed carefully but not necessarily removed. A risk benefit approach is likely to deliver better overall outcomes. Ask the following questions:

• What are the risks?
• Which risks are harmful hazards and why?
• Which risks have positive benefits for children and why?
• What are the different views on these risks in the school community?
• What are the options for managing these risks?
• What are the pros and cons of each option?

Schools need to consider the full picture of risks and benefits of outdoor play, and alternative strategies, before removing valuable opportunities for play, recreation and skill development in the school playground.

Avoid the knee jerk reaction
A common example occurs when a child is injured on upper-body play equipment, such as a horizontal ladder (often called monkey bars). Even though they may look uninteresting, this type of equipment is important for developing upper bodies, balance and rhythm, as well as creating a sense of achievement, social interaction and a host of other benefits. They are especially popular with girls and are therefore an important conduit to physical activity for girls.

If a school has only one set of monkey bars or a track ride in the playground that is designed for older children, younger students may inevitably try and use it. This requires them to jump for a bar set too high; and sometimes results in a fall or even a broken arm. This can occur even if the school has a fully compliant impact attenuating surface under the equipment. Many schools remove the ‘offending’ equipment, leaving the whole school without this valuable play element.

An alternative approach involves taking a step back and properly considering the range of play opportunities offered, in the context of children’s ages and the number of children at school. Instead of removing the equipment, it is often worth adding more of this equipment, but most importantly this should be properly planned with at least two, but preferably three different scales/degrees of challenge.

Design for levels of challenge and skill development
The challenge in a horizontal ladder lies in the height, length and spacing of bars. If bars are too high, children who don’t yet have the skills are at risk of injury when they fall. If they are too low, older children’s feet drag on the ground, removing the fun, challenge and opportunity to extend skills. A well-designed set of such agility play equipment would therefore ideally provide:

• For Prep – Grade 2: 1800mm in height or even lower, and 2500mm-3000mm in length.
• Grades 3 and 4: Up to 2000mm in height and around 3000mm in length.
• Grade 5 and 6 (and Year 7): Up to 2200mm in height, which is the maximum allowed under Australian standards, and up to around 4000mm in height.

As children vary significantly in height, it is important they can self-select the equipment that suits them.

Other simple strategies to reduce injuries on agility equipment include maintaining the impact attenuating surface under the equipment; ensuring bars don’t spin and are small enough for a child to grip; providing bars at an even spacing so children can develop a rhythm; providing large landing decks to accommodate waiting children; providing plenty of other play opportunities across the school to reduce crowding on equipment; and employing a specialist physical education teacher who can introduce students to new agility equipment to help ensure children get enough exercise and physical activity each day.

Children need to play outside and need to learn to manage risks. Schools have a vital role to play here. The best way to enhance children’s safety is to teach skills to deal with the situations they will need to face, and to ensure they have a high-quality range of play opportunities to enhance their health, wellbeing, learning and development.

Photography courtesy of Andrew Lloyd: Upper body equipment such as horizontal ladders and track rides can be linked to other equipment to provide a circuit as long as the landing decks can accommodate waiting children.