Judith and John Hicks
For many working fathers living in urban areas, large parts of the weekend are spent standing in the municipal children’s playground watching over their young children. These places provide a physical and social outlet for their children, an escape. This is especially important when they are living in confined home environments, such as a flat which has no outside play area for children to let off steam.
This was certainly my experience as the father of young boys. How many hours it seemed I spent following my kids around the local playground. For all but the most nervous, the child’s natural inclination will be to go for the most challenging, even dangerous, piece of play equipment. They will do the things which feel dangerous and Dad must be around to catch them if they fall. Now my growing children will hardly go near children’s play parks and I look back to those times with a certain degree of nostalgia.
Recently, as I passed a previously well-used play area with my youngest son (now aged 9), I asked him why he no longer wanted to go there. It’s boring, he replied. He likes the high monkey bars and particularly enjoys climbing on top of the bars, he confided. He also likes pipes which he can crawl through. But that, as far as purpose designed play equipment is concerned, is about as far as his interest goes. He likes the ‘really high stuff’. The environment in the old playground is simply not challenging enough. It does not meet his aspirations.
It is a widely held view that the health and safety agenda is subverting and diminishing the culture of contemporary childhood. Here, one of the foremost experts in this area will argue that rather than being the negative phenomena that it is generally considered to be, children’s health and safety legislation is largely a good thing. John Hicks believes that contemporary culture demands safe accessible environments for children. It is an important cultural process of socialization. Furthermore, if designers understand the rules that apply, they can still design imaginative play parks which continue to challenge the physical boundaries for our children.
In this chapter he describes the evolving history of children’s play parks, and explains the basic rules for evaluating safety and developing good design strategies for children’s play parks. He goes some way to defining exactly what ‘child friendly’ actually means and sets out the rules which ensure that the environment complies with modern health and safety legislation.
A recent news item which in bold print declared that ‘Compensation culture turns our parks into dreary, fun-free deserts’1 is all too typical of the way things are portrayed. He argues that, whilst children’s safety must always be paramount, this is by no means incompatible with the provision of well – designed, imaginative play spaces that encourage both independence and collaboration. In fact, it is in his view axiomatic that the two go hand in hand.
Play conferences commonly warm up members by inviting them to identify key words and activities relating to their own childhood play experiences. Plainly these relate to the age of the participants and in recent years the customs and practices of the 1950s and 1960s have predominated. Key phrases, words and attitudes that generally emerge include ‘freedom to roam’, ‘absence of traffic’, ‘street games’ and ‘bullying’, while the fears of child abduction or molestation are generally raised as more recent issues. There is seldom reference to the incidence of accidental injury or death. With prompting, the group normally echoes one or other of the lately fashionable urban myths that include swings removed because they were facing the wrong way, playgrounds closed because conker gathering created an unacceptable risk, and the
need to close recreation areas rather than ensure that they comply with requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
There is a puzzling certainty attaching to these criticisms which is perhaps best illustrated in relation to swings as discussed in a recent newspaper article: ‘Another regular occurrence, it is said, was the removal of three-in-a row swings because the outer swings could hit the one in the middle’. This is a version of the invariable practice of playground inspectors to recommend the removal of the centre swing in these cases since, following current British Standards, gaining access to the centre swing is considered hazardous. Stories such as that referred to above serve as reminders of the context within which children’s play is often currently discussed; there is a depressingly familiar air to the current implicit call for the closure of conventional play areas. With the introduction of new standards in 1999, the same chorus was raised and many playgrounds were closed or else stripped of serviceable play items not judged dangerous, but non compliant with new, not retrospective, advisory notices. The two key changes of the past ten years are:
1 The replacement of British Standard (BS) 5696 Playground Equipment intended for Permanent Installation Outdoors (amended 1986) by a new European standard BS EN 1176 1988, and
2 the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA).
These changes can be seen within a substantial historical context.