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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Uncritical use of the Six Acre Standard is a case in point,
though it is interesting to note that the guidance notes to the
'it may be used as a crutch for planners, who may come to
depend on it and avoid rigorous thinking from first
'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
Nevertheless, the focus of standards is on equipment, which is
neither the start point nor the end point of providing for
Planning guidance needs to be urgently realigned to enable
development of more diverse and creative play spaces.
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
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?
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
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:
- creating a rich and varied natural environment
- offering play materials and features that are to a high degree
- ensuring that any equipment used is integral to the site as a
whole and complements natural and landscaped site features
- using 'Best Play: what play provision should do for children'
play environment criteria as a basis for making judgments about
- 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
Bernard Spiegal is Principal of PLAYLINK; Karen Newell
is a PLAYLINK Associate; and Nicola Butler is Co-ordinator
of the Free Play Network.