Good practice principles for safe playtimes

Despite the media turmoil, there are some simple and effective actions that schools can take to ensure the safety and well-being of students during school playtimes, says Neil Coleman of OPAL.

More and more schools are recognising the need to ensure that all children are outside, engaged and active during playtimes. With being overweight now the leading health issue in the UK and the government launching their National Obesity Framework, school playtimes have become a key resource for the health, safety and well-being of children.

In recent years many high-profile people, including Anne Longfield, the current Children’s Commissioner for England, have spoken out about the need to get children outside and playing much more. The practical, low-cost solutions to increasing sedentary behaviour, poor fitness and physical literacy and slowed personal development are actions which any school can easily take, once they have committed to changing. Schools are now one of the few locations left where parents will allow their child out of sight for a while. Even then, some fret over the most trivial issues. Sadly, between 15 per cent and 40 per cent of the children aged eleven living in some communities can be categorised as overweight. Of course, the last thing these children need when they arrive at school is more sitting down indoors. They should be outside and active at every opportunity, at the very least for an hour each day. They should be engaged in playful active outdoor adventures, exploration, challenges, friendships and learning.

What schools need is good guidance to help them get there. The key to success is knowing how to create the right playtime environment, whilst also ensuring the balance is right between offering positive, challenging play experiences and keeping children safe from the risk of serious harm. The traditional approach has always been for a school to raise funds and purchase fixed manufactured equipment, similar to what is also provided down the road in the local park, with the ‘trim‑trail’ being a favourite item in many schools. These products are sold as being ‘challenging’ or ‘risky’ but watch several hundred school children during playtime and you’ll soon see how little engagement and risk is actually involved. No wonder children soon get bored of these items and start using them instead as ‘hang-out’ features where they will pass the time until they can go back into the classroom. What good does that do a child?

Engaging play opportunities
Observation of playtimes, something that doesn’t happen nearly often enough, will frequently reveal that around 20 per cent of pupils are dominating the space by running around frantically with a ball, whilst the great majority of pupils are pretty much static, standing around the perimeter chatting, with very little high-energy activity going on anywhere other than at the ball game in the middle.

Success lies in ensuring that every playtime, which after all makes up a massive 20 per cent of the school day, offers as wide a range of engaging and challenging play opportunities and experiences to every single child as can possibly be provided. Access to the entire school site all year round is vital to ensure sufficient play space for each pupil and there should be lots of opportunities for each and every child, not just a dominant group, to get out of breath, to climb, to leap, to build, to create, to kick or throw a ball and to continually test themself in all manner of ways.

When considering what to provide, think not only of standard equipment and landscaping you’ve seen before, think instead of the different ways in which a child might journey from A to B. Then think of the feel of the places that are intended to promote socialisation, comfort and safety, and think of the ways in which different materials can be manipulated and combined. When that’s done then seek out objects which are not obviously intended to be played with, yet can start a new train of thought just by being there (e.g. a post box, a sculpture). When you’ve done all this, you are well on the way to a better play environment. Remember that getting dirty is a positive sign that the outdoor environment is successfully working for children, and that issues around mud on clothes can be addressed by good communication with parents and proper management of outdoor clothing. All of this should be included in continual staff development.

There should always be a huge selection available each day of what are usually termed by playworkers as ‘loose-parts’. This is simply the collection of thousands of ‘thrown away’ items of little or no value to anyone which can therefore be scavenged from local businesses, from home and from around the school. These items are checked for sharp edges and the like, and then offered to children to use as they wish, in their own part of the playground or field, where they can be modified, moulded, used or abused as each child or group of playmates sees fit, without interference by adults (except for safety reasons). These objects can be man-made or natural, and storage and the instant availability of loose-parts is just one part of the play enabling process. Training from school play experts will ensure a better understanding of what play is and in their training staff will be taught the right design and delivery techniques to make things happen the way they need to be. Any larger-scale environmental changes can be achieved once the staff have the necessary knowledge and understanding to make informed judgements on the purchase of equipment and landscaping, if necessary over a period of several years, once a play policy has been agreed and a proper action plan has been devised.

Health and safety
Of course, hand in hand with any physical and cultural changes in a school’s approach to play comes the need to ensure that all children are kept safe from serious harm when they are playing.

This is why, in 2012, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) issued new guidance for children’s play. It came out at the same time the guidance on school trips changed. The HSE is a member of the UK Play Safety Forum (PSF), a voluntary body consisting of the play organisations of the four home nations, RoSPA, the Association of Play Industries and many other organisations connected to children’s play.

The PSF has influence across the world and is regarded as the leading authority in many areas of play safety. It also has advisory experts who are occasionally commissioned to carry out research or to write the best practice guidance which has been agreed by the members.
The most successful PSF publication, now used by play providers all over the world, is Managing Risk in Play Provision, written by D Ball, T Gill and B Spiegal which was first published in 2008 by Play England with contributions from many experts. It has been endorsed by both the Health and Safety Executive and the government, and was recently updated to add new material.

Risk benefit assessment
A key element in managing ‘risky’ or challenging play within schools is the requirement to look upon play in a slightly different way from the assessment of risks in industrial situations. When the Health and Safety at Work Act was written in 1974 there was no thought or intention to include children’s play in the assessment process, nor was there in the subsequent risk assessment requirements which followed in 1999. This meant that a gap existed in the management of risky play situations. Attempts to assess play risks in the same manner as industrial situations would result in a failure to ensure the original purpose of the play opportunity, experience or feature. As an approach to assessment, it simply wasn’t fit for purpose and eventually, after much urging by the PSF membership, the HSE recognised this.

This new, better approach is called Risk‑Benefit Assessment (RBA) and all providers of play opportunities are encouraged by the PSF to make full use of the new RBA tool. Guidance and a worked example are freely available to download on the Play Safety Forum website and if anyone is unsure, help is available via the PSF. The HSE has placed a ‘high-level statement’ on good practice for Children’s Play Safety on their website and the Department for Education has recently followed suit.

The key feature of RBA is that unless the play activity being introduced or assessed has clear value and benefits for children, it should not be there in the first place. Other than that, the standard approach dictates the application of common sense and requires a focus on the serious dangers to children as they play, not the trivial issues which are unlikely to cause lasting harm, such as scratches, bumps, stings and so on. In fact, there is an argument in favour of keeping some of these minor risks, as managed opportunities for children to learn to look after themselves and others, without coming to serious harm in the process.

The important point for all play providers is summed up on the Department for Education website under their Health and Safety advice for Schools: “Children should be able to experience a wide range of activities. Health and safety measures should help them to do this safely, not stop them. It is important that children learn to understand and manage the risks that are a normal part of life. Common sense should be used in assessing and managing the risks of any activity. Health and safety procedures should always be proportionate to the risks of an activity. Staff should be given the training they need so they can keep themselves and children safe and manage risks effectively.”

Provided this sensible advice and the rest of the guidance is properly followed, the requirements for play safety have been fulfilled.

Further information