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Children’s Play

Special Reports

It is often assumed that a children’s play area is a safe haven where no one will ever be hurt, but actually they are areas where children learn, grow and develop new skills in an area where the risk can, to some extent be managed, but never completely eliminated. Individual children develop differently, make unrealistic assessments and will at times be over confident.

Child Development

How a child becomes able to undertake more complex things as they get older. Development is different than growth. Growth only refers to the child getting bigger in size. When we talk about normal development, we are talking about developing skills like:

Gross motor skills: The control of movements that include the whole body or large groups of muscles. This results in large movements and control of large joints.

Fine motor skills: The control of movements that include activity in small or few groups of muscles. This results in more advanced movements and require a high degree of precision and timing.

Language skills: Speaking, using body language and gestures, communicating, and understanding what others say.

Cognitive skills: Thinking skills such as learning, understanding, problem solving, reasoning, and remembering.

Social skills: Interacting with others, having relationships with family, friends, and teachers, cooperating, and responding to the feelings of others.

Risk & Challenge - A Matter of Understanding

As children grow, they need to explore their abilities and take on new challenges or indeed repeat a challenge they have undertaken previously. Unfortunately, by participating in this growing up process they do make mistakes and sometimes they get hurt. It is not uncommon for children to fall from equipment, falls account for approximately 50% of all accidents in playgrounds.

There is a tremendous amount of discussion concerning Risk Assessment in many areas and none more so than in children's playground environments (including skate parks and multi-use games areas); and there is often a cry that the equipment is too high, or too dangerous or just too risky. However, we must not get the positives of risk confused and instead perhaps we should look at challenge and hazard.

Challenge is very positive and in its association with playground equipment becomes a very desirable attribute that encourages children to explore their limitations and develop new skills. A challenge can be an item of equipment or a number of items of equipment that encourages users to try and learn new ways of doing things.

A skate park, or wheeled sports park offers a very high degree of challenge, we all recognise (and seem to accept) that users of skate parks will have mishaps and possibly this will result in a few broken bones. This does not infer for one moment that the park is high risk or that there are problems associated with the design of the equipment, but rather that in participating in the challenge a skate park offers we can reasonably expect that the users will try new tricks and exceed their limitations.

A hazard is a negative influence in a playground and is usually associated with something being wrong with the equipment, the safer surfacing, or the surrounding environment and is likely to cause harm to the user or a visitor to the playground. The hazard can take many forms; from a missing fixing that causes the equipment to fail; to poor design of the area which could result in collisions between users or between users and equipment.

The key here is that with a hazard the users of the park or playground do not expect the hazard (e.g. the swing seat collapses because the fixings have ' worked loose, or the chain has worn through) and because it is not foreseeable an accident results.

It is important that we provide play facilities that offer users a degree of challenge that is suitable for the intended user group. Challenge is a very positive aspect of play and it is important that our parks are sufficiently stimulating to bring children back time and time again. However, all of the challenges provided in a park should be foreseeable by the children using the park.

We must not confuse the risk associated with hazard with the risk associated with challenge. Challenge is a very positive thing, providing children with opportunities to grow and explore their own abilities. A hazard is an unexpected danger that we could not reasonably expect the users to see and which could cause them injury.

Owners/operators of parks have a duty of care to remove unforeseeable hazards that may cause injury and demonstrate that they have acted diligently in the process of operating the park. This is why we have the inspections of each of the parks both those undertaken by the owners and the independent Annual Inspections.

While all of this discussion is going on, we should not get over excited by risk in playgrounds; statistically they are very safe places for our children to be. It is unlikely that a competent inspector will find many if any items in a playground that are likely to cause a serious, disabling, or fatal injury during the course of a year’s work.

In today’s society, it is important to understand that owning or operating a play area comes with certain responsibilities in order to protect yourself and your organisation against claims and litigation. There is no specific legal responsibility to provide inspection & maintenance programmes for children’s play areas; however, the British Standards Institute, Health & Safety Executive, Insurers and major Safety Organisations recommend such procedures.

The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, along with The Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1992 and the Occupiers Liability Act 1957 & 1984 provide a framework to which all owners and operators of play areas should work. Under these Statute Laws there is a legal responsibility placed upon the playground operator to ensure the health and safety of all visitors to the playground.

Playground Managers have a legal and moral responsibility duty of care to children using the site and at the same time need to meet the expectations of the courts. In our experience, meeting or resisting injury claims has very often turned on the quality of the inspections, subsequent maintenance and the quality of the retained documentation.

Inspections

There should be a three-tier inspection regime in place for the playground;

Routine Visual Inspection

Looking at the equipment’s basic condition, especially faults due to recent vandalism, breakages and also cleanliness of the playground. These inspections can be carried out by the manager or his/her staff and should be recorded. Dependant on usage, these inspections should be carried out weekly as a minimum.

Operational Inspection

Looking in more detail at the condition of the equipment, providing a quality control check on the more regular inspections and identifying wear and tear on the equipment. Such inspections should be carried out by an appropriately trained member of staff, or alternatively by a suitably qualified specialist and should be recorded. These inspections should be carried out at least on a quarterly basis.

Annual Inspection

To be carried out by a specialist not connected with the playground operator or manager. Essentially looking at vandalism, wear and tear, long-term structural problems, Standards compliance and design, along with risk assessment etc. This report essentially covers the overall safety of the playground. British & European Standards

The standard (BS EN 1176) for playground equipment is safety standard, the intention is to be able to offer the children using the areas the chance to en- counter acceptable risks as part of a stimulating environment. The standard itself is made up of a number of different parts for swings, slides etc. The introduction to Part 1 sets out the intention of the standard and makes interesting reading; one sentence says ‘children need to learn to cope with risk and this may lead to bumps and bruises and even occasionally a broken limb’. ‘

The aim of the standard is first and foremost to prevent accidents with a disabling or fatal consequence, and secondly to lessen serious consequences caused by the occasional mishap that inevitably will occur in children's pursuit of expanding their level of competence, be it socially, intellectually or physically’.

Playground Surfacing

One important myth to expel is that the impact attenuating surfacing installed around playground equipment is an injury prevention surface; quite simply the only reason impact attenuating surfaces are installed around playground equipment is to prevent serious head injuries e.g. skull fractures or brain damage.

There are may types of impact attenuating surfaces used throughout the UK, these can range from grass, sand, bark or wood chippings, to specialised synthetic surfaces.

Summary

Playground operators have a responsibility for the health and safety of all visitors to the site and must ensure that all reasonable and practical steps have been taken to achieve this goal. In general terms this will mean having a good robust inspection and maintenance regime in place to ensure the upkeep and continued safe use of the area.

It is also important that people undertaking the task in hand are competent; this is not always necessarily about qualifications, it is about having sufficient knowledge and training.

The Register of Play Inspectors (RPII) was established in 1999 to provide training for Routine and Operational Inspectors, and accredit inspectors at all levels. playinspectors.com

Keith Dalton

Managing Director – The Play Inspection Company Chairman - RPII (Register of Play Inspectors)

www.playinspectors.com

www.playinspections.co.uk

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