Mudslides, Saws and Metal Slippery Dips: Should Schools Bring Risk Back into the Playground?

Playground Risk

Risk-taking Should be Encouraged

Risk-taking can be healthy. Wrapping children in ‘cotton wool’ and scrutinising their every move is not helping them to stay safe and actually hampers their development.

These are the messages of a growing global movement which seeks to discard the pristine plastic and rubber playsets and reintroduce activity areas that, despite appearing rough around the edges, present controlled risks to promote the imagination and exploration of children. Playgrounds are increasingly being designed as recreational areas with deliberately inserted risks, such as steep drops, exposed nails and no fences.

Risky playgrounds have been on the rise in the UK and are appearing more frequently in Australia. In fact, a Melbourne playground called Nature Play, which features was a wide natural area and promotes unpredictable play, was crowned Australia’s best playground in 2016. In NSW, the Ian Potter Children’s Wild Play Garden opened in October 2017, featuring various wooden structures, a bridge without rails, and even metal slippery dips.

Yet Risks Must be Minimised

Despite these growing trends, society remains very risk-averse when it comes to children. There are now experts calling on governments to adopt a national injury prevention strategy to combat the risk of child injury. In a landmark report published in 2017, researchers concluded that injury is the leading cause of death amongst Australian children, with more than 680,000 children under 16 years of age treated in hospital for injuries in the 10 years to 2012.

Falls were found to be the most common form of injury, and playground equipment was the major culprit, with over 55,000 children hospitalised over the study period alone. This prompted the researchers to recommend that playgrounds be regularly audited to identify worn equipment and confirm adherence to safety standards, including restricting the free-height of potential falls and using impact-attenuated surfacing.

What do the Standards Say?

The latest Australian Standard for playground safety, released in August 2017, recognises the importance of risk-taking, deviating from the standard risk removal approach in the research report. The objective of AS 4685.0:2017, Playground equipment and surfacing (the Standard) is to minimise risk, providing playground owners operators with guidance on developing, maintaining and operating playgrounds.

The Standard requires playground operators to assess the risks associated with playgrounds, but also expects them to have benefit assessment procedures in place. In other words, any risk assessment must also consider the context of the playground, its purpose and likely users, with the Standard making reference to the importance of risk-taking behaviour in childhood.

Professor David Eager, Chairperson of the Technical Committee CS-005, Playground Equipment, explained that because risk is an inherent part of children playing, the solution is to challenge children and help them develop life skills and to accept certain risks. Professor Eager stated that when children are at play, “it is not a workplace so it is not a zero-tolerance affair”.

The Compliance Problem for Schools

Workplace Safety

However, in a workplace environment, there is zero tolerance for accidents. This is attributable to workplace safety legislation in all states and territories which places obligations on employers (also known as “persons conducting a business or undertaking”) to eliminate risks to the health and safety of certain persons, or to minimise those risks, so far as is reasonably practicable. Additional obligations arise for these persons when their conduct involves management or control of fixtures, fittings or plant at workplaces to specifically ensure that these are without risks to the health and safety of individuals.

This leaves schools in a difficult position. Because schools are also a ‘workplace’ they fall within the scope of workplace safety laws, and hence the ‘zero-tolerance’ approach that Professor Eager described. Playground areas are part of the school’s workplace since teachers do go to these areas as part of their supervision duties. And the playground equipment itself likely falls within the wide definition of ‘plant’ under the legislation, meaning there is a specific duty on schools to remove risks from the playground.

Duty of Care

Schools and their teachers also have a common law duty to exercise reasonable care to protect students from reasonably foreseeable risks of harm while they are involved in school activities, including in the playground. As discussed in our previous School Governance article, the playground duty of care is commonly litigated, a keen reminder to schools about the importance of playground supervision and to enforce rules for student behaviour in the playground.

However, the High Court has previously stated that it is not reasonable to enforce a system where supervision of playground activities occurs “for every single moment of time”, highlighting this to be damaging to the teacher-student relationship and to the development of responsibility in children. But while courts regularly state that social utility is a key component of considering whether there is a breach of a duty of care, it is very unclear how this is assessed.

So even though risk-taking behaviour in the playground presents a recognised benefit to children, schools are left with little guidance when seeking to find the balance between what would have a significant ‘utility’ to children, and what is ‘reasonable’ in the context of mitigating against the risk of child injury and avoiding litigation.

With no clarity on these boundaries, and the ‘zero-tolerance’ approach taken under workplace safety laws, it is easy to see why most schools keep their plastic and rubber playsets.

The Search for a Solution

Many schools around the world have successfully implemented their versions of risky playgrounds. In New Zealand, a primary school abandoned playground rules during breaks as part of a university study, letting kids climb trees, ride skateboards and mudslides and play bull-rush. Despite appearing chaotic, the school’s principal stated that after removing these rules, there was a decline in serious injuries, vandalism and bullying behaviour. The school has since reduced the number of teachers on playground duty and the ‘timeout area’ has been removed.

But the idea of taking away the rules, or giving children access to saws, hammers, knives and even fire (as a school in the UK has done), probably seems ludicrous to many Australian schools. The compliance burden on schools seems to grow daily, leaving them in constant fear of litigation. But if the core purpose of schools is to promote the education, learning and development of children, then this needs to be reflected in their approach to risk.

Striking a balance between meticulously supervising children every moment while they are at school, and promoting their independence and autonomy as individuals, is not just a job for schools. But schools are responsible for taking a mature approach to risk that recognises that it cannot be completely avoided.

By introducing a risk management architecture that focuses on controlling risk, rather than eliminating it altogether, perhaps more schools can introduce their own risky playgrounds and do their part to unwrap the cotton wool around their students.


About the Author

Kieran Seed is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. He can be contacted here.

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