Confusing freedom with risk

30th October 2009 at 00:00
The balance between allowing children to play unhindered and wrapping them in cotton wool has been struck in some public playgrounds

Tense, anxious and uncertain, but convinced she has to do it, the woman in the outdoor play area marches up to the strangers and demands to know why they are talking to children there. "You shouldn't be doing that. Have you asked their parents' permission? Who are you?"

The questions come tumbling out, propelled by the stress she's feeling. When she stops to draw breath, Sue Gutteridge explains to her that we're on a tour of play areas which have been highlighted as good practice - areas she commissioned when she worked with Stirling Council. The children had approached us and started chatting, as kids will.

"Well, I still don't think you should be talking to them. You might be all right but you're giving them the message that it's OK to talk to strangers. It's not."

It's a good point and, as tensions subside, she begins to chat about how well this particular play area in Cowie - with its grassy folds and contours, mazes, trees, climbing-walls, steps, hammocks, tyre-swings and landscaped trails - suits the needs of children, including her two-year- old granddaughter.

We couldn't have had a better illustration, Ms Gutteridge says later, of how hard it is to get the balance between protecting children and wrapping them in cotton-wool - the central issue at a conference, a few days earlier, which led to this tour.

The theme running through Children, Risk and Responsibility, organised by Children in Scotland, was "encouraging confidence in a risk-averse society".

A striking map of a city in the presentation by children's play specialist Tim Gill demonstrated how drastically an eight-year-old's right to roam had diminished through three generations - from the whole city to the end of the street.

Ronnie Hill from the Care Commission spoke feelingly about urban myths that had grown up around what they won't permit. "I've been told, for instance, that we don't allow hammers and nails in nurseries. It's tosh.

"We regulate thousands of services in Scotland for improvement, not conformity. We're about improving children's lives. Safety and well-being are at the heart of it. But so too is promoting independence. There are no situations in which opportunities are entirely risk-free."

This goes to the heart of the problem. What level of risk is acceptable in children's health and safety? If it's none, the consequences are dire, say the speakers - for teachers, parents, society and the children.

"People say kids grow up faster today," says Tim Gill. "This might be true of their consumption of adult style and culture. But with everyday freedoms, nothing could be further from the truth. Childhood is characterised by growing adult control and oversight, and by shrinking freedom of action by children."

In public playgrounds, this safety-at-all-costs culture has taken root, leading to inordinate expense, arid environments and often the opposite of what was intended, says Mr Gill. "The risks are very small. In a 20-year period, five or six children might be killed in playground accidents. But what if one of those children were yours, you might be asked? How would you feel?"

Understandable as a plea for sympathy, the question is deeply unhelpful as a way of deciding what's best for children, says Mr Gill. "To gain perspective on risk, we need to move beyond feelings in the aftermath of tragedy. If we are always required to look at the world through the eyes of the most unlucky, we'll always choose zero risk."

Yet almost half the cost of public playgrounds goes on sophisticated surfacing that saves the lives of, at most, two children a decade. "The sums are not small - around pound;300 million on playgrounds in the last decade. Imagine how many more children's lives could be saved if that was used for traffic-calming schemes? In that same period, 2,500 children die on the roads."

If the wrong decisions are taken for emotional reasons, the result can be that children's lives are curtailed, their development delayed, and the essential skills they need to survive in the world go unlearned.

"There's a move from fear through experience to confidence that should happen all the time in childhood," says Mr Gill. "We need to step back and allow it to."

For creative play specialist Harry Harbottle, who chaired the Stirling conference, it's a struggle to convince decision-makers that the way of least resistance is not the right way. "There are so many disincentives within local authorities to moving this way for the benefit of the children," he says. "We have to get it into Scottish Government policy, then move it to ground level. You have to do that with risk managers, lawyers and people in the authorities who are afraid to put their heads above the parapet. You give them lots of examples."

One telling example, he says, is a study on risk in children's play from Play England, showing good practice around the world. It highlights several instances in Stirling.

These play areas, commissioned by Sue Gutteridge and designed by Judi Legg, run counter to conventional opinion, it says. They dispense with safety surfaces and often fences, and instead build on what's there to "evoke a sense of place". They use grass, water, sand, grit and natural features as "key components of a quality play environment".

Back at the little Cowie play area, the woman who challenged us introduces herself as Elizabeth Sturrock, nurse and foster carer. "I like the structure of this and the things the weans can play with. They get to use their imaginations.

"Some stuff is challenging. Two months ago, my granddaughter couldn't climb that hill. Now I can't keep her off it. I like that it's enclosed by houses. You feel it's safe. It's all about children's safety, isn't it?"

Yes it is, Ms Gutteridge agrees, on the way to Waverley Park, Stirling. "But it's also about challenge and imagination, as she said. In many play areas anything green, seasonal, changing or interesting to children is outside the fence. It's like putting the kids in a cage."

Waverley Park is no cage. Wide open and once as flat and featureless as a runway, it too has been reshaped and landscaped by Judi Legg and Sue Gutteridge. Mounds, ditches, logs, boulders, bridges, reeds, trees and areas of long grass create an absorbing landscape.

"During the rainy construction period, the kids really enjoyed the mud," says Ms Gutteridge. "They had sponsored mud fights for Comic Relief and the parents asked us afterwards to keep a mud area, which we've done."

Local children helped plant the park with hazel, rowan, birch and willow, and created a little rhododendron den. "We brought this sycamore tree from a construction site," she says, indicating a gnarled trunk draped with nets for children to climb on.

"Look at these rowan berries in this hollow, where they've been playing a game. Aren't the trees here wonderful at this time of year, with the sun on their leaves?"

Two youngsters playing on a tyre-swing, watched by their dad, give us the benefit of their thoughts on the new-style park. Alastair Miller ("nearly 6") says: "I like the fireman's pole, it's fun to slide down."

He climbs up the tree-house and demonstrates, several times. "Dad took us to the fire-station two weeks ago. I didn't get to slide down the pole, but I did get a shot of the hose."

A nice aspect of the park, says dad, Grant, is that its features allow children to learn to take it gradually, with support from parents at first. "When he was four, I'd stand at the bottom of the pole and catch him. Kids also watch other children and learn from them. They see how it's done."

In the end, it's not about the equipment as much as the philosophy, says Ms Gutteridge. "We need to allow children to engage with natural surroundings, be sociable or solitary, experience change or continuity, and take acceptable levels of risk."

Decisions about what is acceptable are too often taken on emotional rather than logical grounds, says Harry Harbottle. "My background is child safety and I know it's not the law that has to be changed. It's the interpretation and the myths.

"The law now says you have to take account of benefits to the child from any activity, in addition to risks. You can't stop accidents by making the world a grey place for everybody. You have to give children the freedom to develop.

"When you diminish childhood, it diminishes us all."

"Managing Risk in Play Provision, Play England, 2009" - guide.pdf


Playing too safe when it comes to children is a natural instinct of local authorities, which might be held responsible if accidents happen in schools, nurseries and play areas, says Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, the organisers of the Stirling conference.

"But we need to find ways of looking at risk that don't impact on children's opportunities to grow and develop. In this country, we have structural issues with the under-fives, who often attend a number of services with different staff and children.

"Contrast that with Nordic countries where they offer a simpler, universally available structure, in which children attend the same service with children and staff they know throughout pre-school. That knowledge makes a more relaxed, less risky environment.

"A key factor is the quality of the staff. The better qualified are more confident with activities others would worry about.

"At present, the people who work with our youngest and most vulnerable are the least well paid. We need to look at that. The more confident, better- qualified and well-supported staff are, the more able they feel to use space and activities constructively, rather than watching every move a child makes.

"This is part of what the Scottish Government is trying to encourage."

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