PLACES for PLAY: Exhibition

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PLACES for PLAY: Exhibition Editorial

By Bernard Spiegal, Nicola Butler and Karen Newell

Places for play 'in use'

It is not sufficient to create visually pleasing, potentially stimulating and challenging places for play. Critically, places for play must allow children to use the sites in ways which for the most part they determine. This requires adults, who create and control play spaces, to be explicit and public about the need to allow children to take acceptable levels of risk in their play. A clear, publicly promoted - mean what you say, say what you mean - policy about risk and play will help both to protect authorities from unjustified negligence claim (see Preliminary Legal Assessment by Public Interest Lawyers) and contribute to changing the public's understanding about, and expectations of, play provision.

Personal knowledge/public discourse

We are increasingly conscious of a disjunction between people's personal understanding and experience of play, and play's relationship to risk, and public pronouncements about both. The result is a timid and regressive public orthodoxy about play that smothers and distorts personal understandings and remembrance.

The general public discourse about play forms a sort of gesture language of stock phrases and images. This sees play primarily as an activity ('letting off steam') that should take place in designated play spaces full of bright, primary coloured equipment perched upon expanses of safety surfacing. Play conceived as an essentially trivial, but fun way for children to spend time when the serious business of their lives is complete.

In contrast, peoples' personal understanding of play is often nuanced and sophisticated, informed by their own experience. Adults remember their own experiences of childhood and observe their own and other people's children playing. Play is then considered not as trivial or marginal to children, but central and necessary.


The effect of using a limited vocabulary bites most seriously in public consultations. Many local programmes - be they Sure Start, or Regeneration and Housing Schemes - find that parents, children and young people want and need local places to play, but this is uncritically understood as the desire for fenced, equipped playgrounds perched upon (expensive) safety surfacing. The limited vocabulary described permits no other possibility. These finding are then sanctified in the name of community involvement or children's participation.

A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, 'Effective participation in anti-poverty and regeneration work' found:

'It was widely felt that participation was more often used as a tool to achieve outcomes which had largely been decided already. As a result people's experience was often neither enjoyable nor empowering.'

Consultation: stop it?

Consultation, therefore, is often part of the problem. Put another way, what counts as consultation frequently starts with the wrong questions and proceeds to the wrong answers. This is perfectly expressed in the widespread habit of using play equipment catalogues as the focus for making choices about play spaces. As Sandra Melville, in the Places for Play publication writes:

'To begin with questions of play equipment is to start in the wrong place. It would be alarming if an architect began a design for a house by inviting the client to choose the sofas.'

Before one consults, one must learn. Learn, in this context, what we mean by play, and what that meaning entails, in terms of the environments we wish to create and the use children and young people will want to make of them. Which is why so many play practitioners start discussions about play by inviting adults to recall their own experiences of childhood. This is understood as a necessary step towards reviving the language of play.

Too often consultation does no more than manacle consultees to unexamined assumptions, limiting possibility to the replication of the past, but with new money.

Ideas about risk and safety

The disjunction between private and public understanding is equally marked when judgments about risk and play need to be made. In the personal sphere many adults readily affirm the connection between risk and play: no risk, no play. But this is lost at the moment personal understanding enters the public realm. Terms such as 'safe' enter the field and assume the mantle of absolute value, to be achieved at almost any cost. That this is in principle unachievable is hardly examined.

The public discourse on risk perpetuates a lazy, unreflective consensus on 'safety issues' and 'standards' that serve neither children nor their communities. This lazy consensus also feeds into consultation processes. Consultation, as commonly understood, does not have the potential to question fundamentals such as:

does parental and institutional anxiety about risk support or hinder the creation of wonderful places to play?

The ability to pose questions is further constrained if there is muddle about the authority of the consultee. If we cannot get beyond the notion that parents, children and young people are consumers or customers then, from that perspective, market ideology proposes that the 'customer is always right'. This cuts away the grounds for challenging or examining popularly held views.

In practice it is not difficult to consider questions of risk and play. The problem arises when probing questions are avoided.

What is being risk-assessed?

Risk assessment is a useful tool, but like all tools it can be used well or badly. Much depends on the intelligence and experience of the tool user, and what is being assessed. This was graphically illustrated in one of PLAYLINK's play policy workshops comprising Portfolioholders and Officers at various levels of seniority, from a range of services. Each participant did an individual risk assessment of a child climbing a tree. The general consensus was that the risk was low.

Not so, said the Officer responsible for health and safety whose risk assessment had accorded with the general view. Tree climbing should not be allowed because he believed it would increase the likelihood of parental complaints, and potential negligence claims.

Notice the shift that has taken place. The second risk assessment (if assessment it was, rather than instant reaction) was not about the risk involved in climbing trees, but the risk of attracting complaint or claim. Nor was it an assessment of the likelihood that the complaint or claim was either justified or would be successful; the assessment was simply about the assumed likelihood that complaint or claim might be made. No value was given to the 'social value' of play.

Our experience suggests that this is a not an untypical example of how decisions are made about what children can - and cannot - do in play.

The flight from judgment

The risk assessment process is too often distorted by this shift in focus from notionally making judgments about what is good for children, to making judgments about how best to protect adults and institutions. In so saying, we do not mean to take a high moral tone. We recognise that individuals and organisations making judgments about risk feel exposed, fear that if they were to make the type of decisions that their understandings prompt, they would be left unsupported, perhaps vilified, if things 'went wrong' (but what does 'wrong' look like?).

Society appears to be increasingly risk averse - risk illiterate might be another way of putting it. We are after certainty and this makes us nervous about making judgments. Yet assessing risk and benefit is pre-eminently a question of judgment.

It's interesting to speculate the degree to which a reductive, public sector managerial regime with its incessant talk of indicators, targets, 'evidence-based' decisions and objective performance measurement has squeezed out of dedicated and proficient officers, and their voluntary sector counter-parts, a sense of individual autonomy, undermining their confidence to deal with degrees of uncertainty.

Judgment implies uncertainty. The problem with evidence is that it has a habit of facing many ways at once when values form the frame of reference. Values, beliefs, understandings affect how 'facts' are interpreted.

So far as risk assessment is concerned, Lord Hoffman in his contribution to the Tomlinson v Congleton Borough Council judgment makes the vital point that:

'...the question of what amounts to 'such care as in all the circumstances of the case is reasonable' depends upon assessing, as in the case of common law negligence, not only the likelihood that someone may be injured and the seriousness of that injury which may occur, but also the social value of the activity which gives rise to the risk and the cost of preventative measures. These factors need to be balanced against each other.
(emphasis added).

Market failure in Play Provision

The factors we have discussed above, converge to produce market failure in the provision of places for play. By market failure we mean a systematic tendency for the demand side (publicly funded authorities, organisations, agencies that commission, purchase and provide spaces for play) to specify what it should not want. Whilst the supply side (equipment providers, designers, architects) produce what it should not be encouraged to offer.

Not all demand is misplaced nor do all suppliers produce what should not be offered - there is some fine work going on. But viewed as a whole, the demand and supply sides are not best aligned to meet children's and young people's play needs and wishes. This results in the woeful identikit equipment-based play spaces that we see everywhere. As Paul Collins of Timberplay writes:

'The constraints placed within tenders often prevent the design of good play areas in favour of boring, identikit playgrounds with little imagination.'

Market failure in play provision is systematic, failing children, young people and the communities in which they live.

Planning & S106 agreements

Market failure feeds into and is supported by the planning system. Schemes and proposals requiring planning permission and new developments subject to S106 agreements, systematically tend to perpetuate the mistakes of the past. This is not planners fault, nor indeed of the planning system per se. However, within the planning system different elements converge, and are channelled towards granting planning permission to dull, unimaginative schemes.

Uncritical use of the Six Acre Standard is a case in point, though it is interesting to note that the guidance notes to the standard caution:

'it may be used as a crutch for planners, who may come to depend on it and avoid rigorous thinking from first principles...

'it may be insufficiently flexible to take account of differing local circumstances...

'it may take little or no account of the particular characteristics of a catchment area...

'it may take little or no account of the quality of provision...'

Nevertheless, the focus of standards is on equipment, which is neither the start point nor the end point of providing for play.

Planning guidance needs to be urgently realigned to enable development of more diverse and creative play spaces.

Implementing schemes

There is a growing belief that implementation of play developments should not be left in the hands of developers. Rather, their role should be limited to contributing to schemes' capital and maintenance costs. The physical creation of spaces for play should be left to those most competent to do it, that is, local authorities and the not for profit sector.

As knowledge and experience accumulate over time, it is vital that publicly funded organisations and authorities develop an in-house capacity to commission and to oversee the development of quality play environments.

Public sector responsibilities

Responsibility for changing the terms of trade resides primarily with bodies entrusted with public funds - councils, regeneration schemes, housing associations. They need to counter the market failure which, perhaps through inadvertence, they in fact fuel. Bluntly put, at present, they are mostly part of the problem. They have it in their hands to be part of the solution.

The role of the professional and the knowledgeable adult

The validity of expertise, and the different forms it takes, needs to be recognised: the professional's expertise in their relatively restricted discipline area and the lay person's expertise (children, young people and adults) about their own lives, aspirations and localities.

Designers, artists, architects, and play specialists should be able to bring their knowledge and experience to bear, contributing to - not dominating - the process of creating play spaces. The responsibility is to contribute to a process of learning that is not didactic, but conversational.

A conversation where learning is a possibility, comprising both laypeople and professionals, is best conducted when attended by those universal interlocutors, Doubt and Uncertainty. They act also as universal levellers especially where questions of technical expertise - for example, the tensile strength of steel or the relative durability of different plants and grasses - are secondary matters. The primary questions are about qualities, aspirations and values: how do you want to feel in this space? What experiences do we want to make available to children and young people? What will make this space special?

Design process

How might the critique offered here find practical expression? How might it make a difference on the ground? What are its consequences? What, in practice, should be the relationship between professional and lay person?

It is useful to crystallise the encounter between the two types of expertise in the development of a design brief. From our perspective, the design brief is the document that sets out in layman's terms what a particular site aims to achieve, how it should feel, the 'sense of place' to be created, what experiences it should offer, and, as we emphasised above, what it should allow in use.

The design process is the vehicle for looking at what a particular authority, organisation, group or community thinks about play, and for extending that understanding so that it informs design. The design brief must also address the future maintenance and general oversight of the site, and the nature of supervision for staffed sites.

The process should build upon the expertise of professionals and laypeople. The play specialist's role is to assist in the development of the design brief.

The process of design development is a dialogue between the two sorts of expertise - layperson and professional. The process is one of working through ideas, where the form of conversation is:

'Is this what you mean?', 'No not quite, try again'

'I never thought of that, but it does what we want in a surprising way, one we would not of thought of alone'.

We believe that the design development process must be understood and structured as an independent exercise undertaken by those who have both the capacity and the commitment to stimulate thinking about play environments in the round, and not from a narrow product-led perspective.

Fixed equipment playgrounds

Play equipment is neither good nor bad. Judgments about whether or not to use play equipment, and if so which, can be made only with reference to key understandings and criteria generally applicable to environments for play. These include the aims of:

  1. creating a rich and varied natural environment
  2. offering play materials and features that are to a high degree non-prescriptive
  3. ensuring that any equipment used is integral to the site as a whole and complements natural and landscaped site features
  4. using 'Best Play: what play provision should do for children' play environment criteria as a basis for making judgments about play spaces
  5. ensuring that each play space is unique, individually designed, and has a sense of place.


This Places for Play Exhibition aims to complement and add to the growing understanding of what makes a quality place for play. In many places there is already a significant shift in thinking about how to provide for play. That movement is gathering momentum and experience.

Bernard Spiegal is Principal of PLAYLINK; Karen Newell is a PLAYLINK Associate; and Nicola Butler is Co-ordinator of the Free Play Network.

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