Playground safety in perspective

Setting aside the common experience of trivial injury associated with scrapes, cuts and bruises which are an inescapable part of childhood, interest in safety in playgrounds has not figured largely in expressions of community concern until quite recent times. The systematic collection and analysis of playground accidents and injuries is a comparatively recent phenomenon which is ascribable to both the comparative rarity of the
events and what might be seen as a predictably defensive posture adopted by the providers of play services and equipment.

Around thirty years ago Illingworth et al.12 collected statistics over an eighteen-month period relating to 200 playground accidents requiring hospital treatment in a Sheffield hospital. This study and a number of others have been analysed in the work of Karen King and David Ball.13 The Health and Safety Executive recently published further research from Dr David Ball which, in revisiting the
same issue appears to call into question the value of any provision of impact absorbing surfaces (IAS) in relation to their effectiveness in preventing injuries to children. The report confirms earlier findings that the major risk factors in playgrounds are behaviour, equipment height and bodily orientation in falls to the ground, but takes no account of the requirements of DDA; further consideration of this issue is indicated.

In 1991, the Townswomen’s Guild undertook a comprehensive survey of play opportunities and hazards in 878 playgrounds across Britain.14 In a characteristically forthright way they identified the major hazard areas and noted the degree to which dogs and dog fouling, traffic, missing or broken ancillary items, the deliberate introduction of hazards, razor blades, absence of safety surfacing and risk of falling or collision injury all contributed to the potential for child injury. This was perhaps the first reasoned and ‘official’ complaint at the degree to which councils were allegedly responding to a perceived and possibly exaggerated fear of litigation by removing anything that might present a hazard:

‘They (the children) surely need to be presented with some challenges and learn to respect the dangers in life! If safety’s pushed too hard as the sole issue, playgrounds are simply gutted without any corresponding positive action. Or the equipment is rendered so safe that it ceases to have any point.’15

That said, the report clearly identifies hazards such as ‘plank’ swings, ‘Witches Hats’, crash see­saws, wood or metal swing seats and redundant machinery used as climbers. The Guild’s common sense approach to risk in play is in contrast to other examples of this discussion where, through a combination of exaggerated and naive use of language, the impression is given that preventable child injury is considered tolerable.

In 1992, the Department of Education and Science published Playground Safety Guidelines which, while alluding to risk, skirts the problem by identifying challenge and adventure as natural aspects of children’s play but stressing the need to ‘experience these in a safe environment’.16

UK television personality Esther Rantzen probably more than any other individual raised public anxiety in relation to safety in playgrounds in Which reports published in June and July 1994.17 On the basis of Department of Trade and Industry estimates of 30 000 playground accidents annually, she commissioned NPFA to lead safety audits on twenty-five playgrounds in major cities across Britain. The outcomes, predictably, identified issues arising from the toleration of known hazards, inadequate or neglected maintenance of equipment, crowded sites, unsuitable equipment, vandalism and hazards such as damaged fencing and broken bottles. Her campaign for safer playgrounds was influential in establishing the need to install appropriate safety surfaces and bringing to public attention the need for regular inspection and maintenance of play space.