Playground for ideas

With a new national play strategy announced by children’s minister Ed Balls, a pot of £225m will be made available for playgrounds over the next three years.
Jane Carley considers the swings and roundabouts.

The government plans to offer local authorities capital funding which will allow up to 3500 playgrounds nationally to be rebuilt or renewed and made accessible to children with disabilities. A further 30 new adventure playgrounds are proposed for eight to 13 year-olds in disadvantaged areas, supervised by trained staff.

Big Lottery funding has also been in place for the last two years to improve play facilities, and most local authorities have been able to apply for this, developing their own play strategies in the process.

The latest awards from its £124 million Children’s Play programme saw over £65.5 million being shared by 201 local authority areas in England. Each local authority area developed their play strategy in partnership with local play providers that identified how their allocation would be spent.

The largest award, £3.3 million; went to Birmingham City Council, for a play portfolio that includes playworkers providing free, open access inclusive play. Birmingham and other authorities are now recruiting development officers to decide how the cash will be spent within the framework of the strategy, so there is scope for considerable investment over the coming months.

However, it is hard to precisely quantify the opportunities or even the size of the playground industry in the UK, as Play England reports that there are no national statisitics on the number of playgrounds, annual spend or way in which they are developed or improved.

“We hope that the new national play strategy will help to create a national framework,” said a Play England spokesman. “At the moment local authorities have no statutory duty to collate information on play provision, although the Big Lottery funding has encouraged them to map their programme. There are some big changes ahead in the way play is provided.”

With the diversity in the size, nature and social composition of local authority areas, their approach to the provision of play facilities is likely to vary widely.

Play and leisure consultancy Playlink commissioned independent researcher Sarah Cheverton to study procurement and maintenance practice for local authority play areas in 2006. One finding was that capital spend on playrounds has a very broad spread – respondents spent from £20,000 to £7m over the previous five years. The average spend was £689,000, or £137,800 per year. Maintenance and repair costs spanned £1,000 to £1.75m in five years, with the average being £57,000 per year.

Playlink’s research found that the nature of local authority departments responsible for children’s play is diverse – from parks and landscape departments to youth and children’s officers, which can make life difficult for landscape designers approaching them for work.

Another issue is that most of the respondents to the survey reported that they contact playground equipment suppliers direct when commissioning a new playground or refushishing an exisiting play area. Formal tenders often include the entire design, supply and install process. Equipment suppliers will often have their own design team or a list of preferred designers, so building a relationship with the manufacturers is essential.

However, the newly formed Play Design Network has decided that one of its first activities would be to draw up a list of play designers for which would be available public access, and Children’s Play Information Service and Play England is developing a database of designers which will be published in March 2008.

Design priorities for playgrounds are complex and are driven by what children and adults expect from them. The ideal playground challenges children and helps improve co-ordination, agility, problem-solving skills, spatial awareness, strength and social interaction – a tall order given financial restraints and an increasingly entrenched ‘compensation culture’.

Guidelines on public play areas and their arrangement are laid down by the National Playing Fields Association’s – now known as Fields In Trust – Six Acre Standard . They range from Local Areas for Play (LAPS) which do not have to include play equipment, Local Equipped Areas for Play (LEAPS) with a minimum of five different activities (multiplay equipment can be counted as providing up to three separate activities) along with a separate games area and Neighbourhood Equipped Areas for Play (NEAPS) which combine a minimum of eight different activities with a hard surfaced kick-about/skate/cycle area.

Play equipment itself has to comply with BSEN 1176 and surfacing with BSEN 1177, and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations require that all
playgrounds be subject to a risk assessment.

BSEN 1176 and the Health and Safety Executive strongly recommend that all play areas have at least one inspection every year from an independent suitably qualified body such as RoSPA. New playgrounds should be subject to a post-installation inspection on completion as part of any contract and the cost met by the installer. The purchaser must be advised of the inspection and maintenance schedules for each item of equipment.

While health and safety remains an important issue, children’s organisations now consider that risk plays an important part in a child’s development, and that making playgrounds too safe can be counter-productive. If children find play equipment dull and uninspiring they are more likely to go and seek excitement elsewhere, which may expose them to greater danger.

Thus in the last five years, a more balanced approach to safety has emerged and more adventurous designs are being offered by manufacturers and accepted by specifiers. The government’s commitment to specific adventure playgrounds in disadvantaged areas is an example of this, but these do require additional resources in the form of supervision.

Strategic Parks Officer for Warwick District Council Dave Anderson is well aware of the shift. “Many of our playgrounds were last updated when the European standards came in, so we took a very safe approach. But we are now more open – we want equipment that complies with legislation but offers an element of risk. It can be provided by play activity rather than equipment and this has been underlined in the strategies developed for the Big Lottery funding. One problem is that there is a gap in the market for equipment for teenagers – only a couple of suppliers have anything suitable.”

Adrian Parker of play equipment specialist Husson UK says that the move is towards more dynamic equipment, especially for older children.

“Equipment needs to provide more movement and offer a qualified risk to attract teenagers,” he explains. “Thus more local authorities are specifying aerial runways, group swings and even skate ramps in play areas.”

Sutton Borough Council has formed a partnership with Husson UK to cover design, supply and installation of equipment, and the approach has included integrating teenager-focused areas such as ball courts and a skate park with more traditional play equipment.

“We undertook an extensive consultation which included young people in the borough,” explains Technical Officer Maura Collyer. “And they indicated that they wanted play equipment aimed at their age group as well as activities. Husson UK has responded with items that are quite urban and ‘funky’ and clearly not aimed at younger children.”

Consultation with the ‘end user’ has become an increasingly important part of the process. One of the longest established manufacturers, Wicksteed Playscapes has established ‘play teams’ selected from children at schools nationwide who are consulted on new designs of play equipment, colour schemes and layouts.
“We’re talking directly with the children and their input to design and development is fantastic,” said Managing Director Phil Holden. “Our Monsta range was 75% their design and throughout our new product book, all the colour schemes are their choice.”

And in the London Borough of Bromley, the most recent phase of a lottery funded programme to upgrade 19 playgrounds included inviting local children to an exhibition where they could choose from a selection of designs provided by Wicksteed Playscapes.

The company has taken the target audience up a decade or two with its new Xerscape range, developed in conjunction with Staffordshire University’s Centre for Exercise Research. Based on gym equipment, the apparatus is accompanied by simple explanations of how to use it for various levels of fitness and could offer a useful option for teenagers upwards.

Expanding the range of activities is also on the agenda for younger children in Warwick District Council’s play areas.
“We’re looking at using sand as a safety surface rather than wet pour or bark to offer additional play value as well as a soft landing,” explains Dave Anderson.

Inclusion is another hot topic. The Disability Discrimination Act, introduced in 2004 requires reasonable provision to be made for equal opportunities for disabled people. Many manufacturers now offer equipment suitable for use by disabled children – wider seats for example, allowing a carer to sit with the child, or higher sides to slides and chutes offering a greater feeling of security. Surfacing is also has to be considered. While not all disabled people who wish to use the facilities will be in wheelchairs, sand, bark or rubberized surrounds can impair their access.

The charity Barnardo’s has produced a guide to developing play opportunities for disabled children and overcoming problems. Design guidelines issued by the Association of Play Industries include lots of helpful advice for inclusion – from painting the gate to the play area a different colour to the fence to help the visually impaired to specifying multi-play equipment which can be used by children with different levels of ability.

A holistic approach to inclusion is needed, reckons Adrian Barker “It’s no good having the most inclusive equipment if disabled children can’t access it,” he points out. “Attention needs to be paid not just to surfaces but also to access and even adjacent parking.”

He cautions against equipment which is clearly aimed at special needs children. “If able bodied children won’t play on it, then it stops being inclusive. We aim to ‘design out disability’ and provide pieces which all children can enjoy.”

In Sutton, consulting the community again proved useful – one new playground is next to a school for special needs children, and their input, along with that of other disability groups has proved vital.

“It’s not a matter of just adding ramps to access equipment – disabled children see enough ramps as it is. The school recommended items such as special hand grips, triangular platforms and the use of contrasting colours. We have been able to design a playground which highlights the similarities between disabled and able bodied children, not the differences,” explains Maura Collyer.

Matching playgrounds to the environment is a priority for Warwick District Council, which places low profile equipment suited to small children close to housing, with areas for juniors and teenagers further away.

“Although we have started to procure equipment on a larger scale and we have asked two suppliers to design, supply and install equipment for as many as 24 playgrounds, we look at each on a site by site basis. We tend to work closely with either a consultant or the supplier’s own design team to get what we need,” explains Dave Anderson.

Sutton also combines rural and more urban areas, and Maura Collyer points out that consultation helped to identify equipment which would blend in with its surroundings.

Using the natural environment to shape the design of the play area can also be helpful, suggests Wicksteed Playscapes. “At Stoke Albany in Kettering, the undulating site was used to divide a playground into separate areas for toddlers and older children, while in Harlow Town Park, two large mounds were connected by a specially designed wooden bridge, with play features included beneath it. This allows the children spontaneity in a natural space,” explains a spokesman.

Vandalism can quickly add a sour note to a welcome play development, but it has shown that one way to minimise graffiti and other damage is to make potential perpetrators feel included. Shelters and seats where teenagers can gather and socialize have proved effective in reducing vandalism and have an additional benefit in that they give young people a place to go where they can run around, play football or otherwise let off steam.

Adrian Parker is a firm believer in the benefits of making play equipment interesting enough to deter vandalism. “But it is important to specify sturdy equipment, mainly because local authorities may not have the revenue to maintain playgrounds. We look to supply products with inbuilt longevity, for example by using galvanized steel in its construction.”

In Sutton, wooden play equipment has been largely phased out because of its vulnerability to fires. “We now specify high pressure laminate as a material and fire resistant surfacing. Although young people can be surprisingly inventive when it comes to starting fires, the Husson UK equipment has stood up well!”

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