Green Places Magazine Article: The starting point for play

So far as we are aware, no negligence claims have been lodged against local authorities for inducing boredom in children, or for limiting the scope of their imaginations, or for unreasonably denying them access to acceptable levels of risk in their play provision. Given what we should reasonably know about children, young people and play, what they need, want and enjoy, this should strike us as surprising.

Bewilderment is also in order. Bewilderment at our – that is, adults - seeming forgetfulness about where and how we played as children, and what those experiences might be trying to tell us when we come to provide for children’s play. From this perspective, playgrounds dominated by identikit equipment can be understood as monuments to collective acts of forgetfulness – and, perhaps, collective acts of timidity and muddle.

It is of course possible that children have changed since we were young. Perhaps they don’t know how to play anymore. They’ve lost the knack. It would be odd if we genuinely believed this to be true. The reason we are not entitled to delude ourselves that children have so significantly changed in their inherent aptitudes, capacities, predilections and behaviours is the first hand knowledge we have, or should have, from simply observing children when left to their own devices. It is of course the case that youngsters’ appear often to be in thrall to electronic games, from which it can be difficult to prise them. But this is raise questions about adult responsibilities in relation to the inevitable flow of innovation and invention directed at children. This is a large subject, to be tackled elsewhere.

The sad truth is that too many authorities, and indeed play providers across settings, participate in what amounts to a masquerade, one that purports to offer children and young people rich, stimulating and enjoyable play opportunities, but in fact offer dull, identikit, could-be-anywhere sites containing contorted metal perched upon surfaces designated ‘safe’. Such developments are duly anointed by ‘consultation’ exercises, not infrequently amounting to not much more than the opportunity for consultees to peruse catalogues of play equipment.

Well, if you think that scrutinising a McDonald’s menu will lead to an appreciation of the world’s rich choice of foods, or that one begins to design one’s dream house by first choosing the saucepans, then this approach to engaging with people will have much to commend it.

An alternative perspective suggests that too often public authorities are entwined within interlocking muddles and anxieties that effectively undermine the possibility of creating ‘playable spaces’, ones that have the potential to delight, to evoke a sense of place, to offer access to the natural environment, and to allow children and young people to be solitary and social as well as simply to ‘let off steam’.

I want in this article to address briefly three areas: risk, play and fear of negligence claims; what makes a good place for play; consultation.

PLAYLINK commissioned authoritative legal opinion – Counsel Opinion – to test our assertion that play providers would benefit from developing a formally endorsed play policy – this is distinct from a play strategy. In summary, the Opinion was clear that:

‘it is entirely legitimate for PLAYLINK to emphasise, in its Play Policy, the need to balance against the risk of injury, the benefits to children and young persons of undertaking play activities within an acceptable level of risk…. Where there has been a careful risk assessment, resulting in a conclusion that it is permissible for play to involve a risk of injury, by reason of the resultant benefits, I am confident that Courts would be sympathetic to a Defendant, in the event of an accident and subsequent litigation.’

That phrase:

‘resulting in a conclusion that it is permissible for play to involve a risk of injury, by reason of the resultant benefits’

creates, in our view, an expanded territory of possibility for the creation of wonderful play spaces. For what this might mean in practice I urge you to visit the joint PLAYLINK/Free Play Network online ‘Places of Woe: Places of Possibility’ exhibition at: http://www.freeplaynetwork.org.uk/playlink/exhibition/woepossibility

Let us assume now that public play providers have released themselves from the self-imposed constraints that are the hallmark of a defensive, ‘watch-my-back’ culture. Our experience has been that significant numbers of authorities are immensely keen to do something different, something better, in respect of places for play. But danger lurks here. The danger resides in what might be described as a restricted version of what constitutes ‘play’, and which, by logical extension, leads to creation of woeful play places equipped to accommodate this limited view.

Whilst it is of course true that play is ‘fun’, that it is about ‘letting of steam’, and that it involves movement and noise, it is no less true that it is often quiet and contemplative, solitary and social, involves being mucky and, of great significance, engaging with and being in the natural environment.

Consider now the conventional play site; consider, too, your own experience of childhood. In this context it needs to be reported that, in the view of the adults we engage with – Members, Officers, frontline providers in all forms of provision, ‘ordinary people’ –children and young people have more limited and less engaging play opportunities than the generation now firmly in its adulthood. We have not done well.

PLAYLINK argues for and creates places for play that:

‘offer children opportunities to: engage with their natural surroundings, be sociable and solitary, create imaginary worlds, test boundaries, construct and alter their surroundings, experience change and continuity, take acceptable levels of risk.’

The release of creative energy is likely to be hindered when a narrow, mechanistic view of ‘consultation’ prevails. Often, efforts as consultation amount to no more than a form of misplaced consumerism, where the mere act of wanting or thinking something, sanctifies the choice. This is wrong for at least two reasons.

Henry Ford, who knew a thing or two about relating to the public, knew one of them: ‘If I asked the public what they want, they’d ask for a faster horse’, he reputedly said. In other words, people only know what they know; not what they don’t. Too many approaches to consultation offer ‘choices’ that prompt only the dull mimicry of the past.

The second reason is this: capital investments for play are designed to have a life of, say, fifteen to twenty years. Decisions made today tie down and define the offer of tomorrow. At the point when capital is to be invested, only a particular cohort is available to be consulted; yet the choices people make today, necessarily bind tomorrow.

Where does this lead? To this: the aim must be to create and engage with ‘informed decision-makers’ who understand, and gain authority from, fulfilling the role of ‘decision-makers-in-trust’; that is, who understand that they are making decisions for this and future generations.

Thus PLAYLINK does not simply ‘consult’. We say engagements should be in ‘good faith’. We therefore engage though dialogue, through showing, through learning, through exploration. What we find again and again is that at the outset the scope of possibility is not known. But once apprehended, the hum and buzz of creativity takes hold. Design scope is enlarged.

From our perspective, it is not about the imposition of a point of view, but about sharing knowledge, creating an informed consensus - one not languishing at the lowest common denominator – that prompts creative action on the ground.

Bernard Spiegal is Principal of PLAYLINK and Common Knowledge.
PLAYLINK is an independent play consultancy working in the areas of play space design, local engagement, policy, strategy, fundraising and general consultancy. Go to www.playlink.org.uk or contact via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.