During winter, we often see children’s opportunities for playing reduce significantly due to fears for their safety. The paths are slippery, and the yards and fields are icy or full of mud. Where necessary, significant risks to children’s safety and wellbeing need to be reduced. But most winters we curtail children’s risky play because of skewed perceptions, instinctive reactions and secondary risk management (Elizer’s mum will go ballistic if she goes through the knee of those new school trousers!) The result? An unreasonably harsh application of safety measures.
Risky play or playing with uncertainty enables children to place themselves in situations that have a sense of jeopardy and risk without overexposure to the serious likelihood of harm (Gordon & Esbjorn-Hargens, 2007; Pellis, 2013). When creating risky scenarios in their play, children might more accurately be described as being in control of generating the feeling of being out of control. Ellen Sandseter researched the risky play of children in their early years and found that these forms of play were significant to children. The children called it ‘Scary fun’. Children seek opportunities to develop this scary fun in their play because it’s exhilarating and thrilling, gives them a sense of pride and achievement when mastering a new challenge, and influences their self-esteem, self-confidence and peer relationships.
From her research with children, Sandseter (2010b) identifies eight different ways that children play with risk:
Playing at height – experiencing climbing, hanging/dangling, balancing and jumping
Playing at speed – running, sliding, cycling or rolling at speeds that feel out of or on the edge of control
Playing with dangerous tools – using an axes, saws, knives, hammers and ropes etc.
Play near dangerous elements – the excitement of playing when there is a risk of falling in or off into something, perhaps water or mud
Rough and tumble play – physical contact play with swords and sticks, or just wrestling
Playing free of adult supervision – playing as exploration and discovery perhaps in new spaces but particularly with a sense of freedom from supervision
Play with impact – playing on the dodgems or at least recreating opportunities that trigger the same feelings from exaggerated collisions
Vicarious play – playing where the thrill is derived from watching others.
When children play in the ways that Sandseter identifies, they are finding and generating experiences that give them real feelings of exhilaration and excitement nervousness, anxiety, even fear. Playing in this way enables children to test, explore, extend and refine their capabilities continuously, and the possibilities afforded by each other and their environments.
Playing with uncertainty in these ways requires children to practice a high degree of risk management for themselves. Playing with uncertainty stimulates physical and biological responses that influence the way children feel and then requires them to work out what they want to do about those feelings. Children’s risk management processes include understanding, predicting and evaluating (executive function, hypothesis testing), and importantly translating all that processing into meaningful bodily response (hierarchical integration of brain-body systems).
Playing with uncertainty is training for life
Throughout life, there is nothing more certain than we will be faced with uncertainty and challenging experiences that will make us anxious, nervous, uncomfortable, exhilarated, even scared. Playing with uncertainty and engaging with risk through play is the perfect training ground for a life full of uncertainty. Put simply, when children are empowered to generate play that for them presents a sense of risk, we are enabling them to build the sense of confidence and self-esteem, coupled with experiences and skills, that contribute to their developing resilience.
Weighing up benefits and risks makes for better practice
Children’s attraction to novelty, flexibility and change, and to the creation of uncertainty (Pellis, 2013) is perfectly matched with their need to discover the world around them, and for the creation of experiences that make for a good life and healthy growth and development. However, as adults and carers of children, we are all too often a little risk-averse. When observing/supervising playing children we regularly overreact, looking to the worst-case scenario rather than allowing the observable facts in front of us to inform our judgements, this can result in the unnecessary curtailing of play opportunities.
Rather than jumping in and stopping play based on our first reactions, it’s a good idea to take just a second or two more to think:
What is going on here?
How is it going?
Why are the children choosing to do it?
What are the benefits?
What risks are children actually taking?
Are children being cautious, managing their or each other’s behaviour?
Given the benefits and the risks do I really need to stop this?
Where there is time to do this (it only takes seconds), we can avoid overreacting, and instead carefully respond, reflecting on the details of the situation. We can think what processes may be beneficial and what are the real risks, consider potential options and formulate more reasoned responses and interventions.
Better practice equals better play
When we pay attention in this way, we routinely find that children are aware of possible dangers and are taking steps to manage the risks already. When we take these extra few seconds to look, listen and think before acting, the only intervention or response required is often to continue applying a little oversight. One thing is for certain, when adults start to pay attention like this, they learn about children and play, and their attitudes and behaviours towards children and their play change, and children’s opportunities for play improve.
Ben Tawil and Mike Barclay, OPAL School Mentors and Directors of Ludicology
The OPAL Primary Programme can help you harness the power of play at your school. Get in touch and start your journey today.
Gordon, G. & Esbjorn-Hargens, S. (2007) Are we having fun yet? An exploration of the transformative power of play. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Volume 47, pp.198-122.
Pellis, S. and Pellis, V. (2013) The playful brain: Venturing to the limits of neuroscience. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications.
Sandseter, E. B. H., Kleppe, R., & Sando, O. J. (2020). The prevalence of risky play in young children’s indoor and outdoor free play. Early Childhood Education Journal, 1-10.
Money. There’s never been enough of it for everything our primary schools need to do, arguably even more so right now amid a pandemic. So, if there’s a way of using limited funds more positively and efficiently, which an entire school can benefit from, would you be interested?
The number of English primary schools has slowly decreased over the decades, from around 21,000 after WW2 to under 17,000 today. However, the pupil population of individual schools has been steadily increasing (back in 2015 there were already 87 schools with more than 800 pupils), resulting in a current national average of one adult in the playground at lunchtime for every 36 pupils.
“The average state-funded primary school now has 282 pupils on its roll… Since 2009, the average size of primary schools has increased by 43 pupils, the equivalent of more than 1.5 extra classes per school”
The application of the 1:36 ratio results in the presence of many untrained adults in the play environment. Supervisors are left to work in the absence of any strategic or policy-based approach from the school, leading to decisions and practices which diminish the quality of play and make playtimes even harder to manage. Common examples include separating children by age and confining children onto relatively small areas of Tarmac for most of the year. Inevitably, overcrowding and boredom caused by lack of engaging play opportunities lead to inactivity, high levels of low-level accident reporting and increased behavioural incidents. As a result, the staff call for even more staff or less playtime. Schools don’t need more staff – they need better training!
Investing in staff – including lunchtime supervisors – makes sense financially. When supervisors change from a policing role to a playwork-based enabling role, the following usually happens:
playground incidents quickly decrease as play quality rises
there are fewer demands on senior leaders’ time
playground staff have many more positive interactions and fewer negative encounters with children
Active play and informal activities remain the most common way for children in younger age groups (Years 1-6) to be active.
The first Active Lives Children and Young People survey showed that enjoyment above all other elements of physical literacy is the biggest driver of children’s activity levels.
Everybody’s time costs money and schools are very expensive institutions to run. The hundreds of schools that OPAL has worked with since 2006 typically save between £2,000 and £4,500 per year in recovered time.
Schools are eager to spend a great deal of money on fixed play equipment, especially low-level, ‘low risk’ trim trails, despite children finding them to have limited, short-term play value. After the initial wave of excitement has passed, it isn’t long before fixed equipment becomes ‘just part of the furniture’, effectively ending up as an overpriced seat or coat hanger. A medium sized primary school typically spends around £50,000 a year on the mediocre or poor supervision of play. Wouldn’t investment in play be better spent on the quality of this workforce through training in the basics of Playwork than on fixed items that provide a small amount of benefit to a small number of children?
The same question about spending money wisely also applies across the UK nations. The total cost for the supervision of playtimes is three quarters of a billion pounds every year. In Wales and Scotland there are polices and strategies to help schools provide a vision of what this investment should be used for. In England there is nothing!
The inadequate training of more than 130,000 primary school lunchtime staff has to be questioned at school and governmental levels.
There are 4.7 million primary school children who desperately need better play opportunities in their lives. Every ten years, £7.5 billion is wasted on staffing that is not fit for purpose. The transformation of school supervisors into a properly trained school playwork team can have a positive impact across every aspect of school life. A national playwork workforce could revolutionise the quality of practice, save schools thousands of pounds and improve every child’s mental and physical wellbeing.
I was recently asked to sign an online petition to oppose the cutting back of school playtimes in response to Covid-19 arrangements in primary schools. I usually work in schools every day, but since lockdown I’ve only been into one. Before signing, I wanted to find out a bit more about what’s really happening out there. So we published a quick Twitter poll and out of 50 respondents, 50% said that playtime has been reduced in their school.
This is obviously a small sample, but if it is even close to being representative of schools nationally then over 2.25 million children in England between the ages of 4 and 11 could have less outdoor playtime than before the pandemic.
“For social and emotional wellbeing, children need opportunity for all types of play, including play with their peers and physical outdoor play, both of which have been and, to some extent, continue to be restricted. This restriction is likely to felt particularly acutely by children without siblings who are close in age and by children who don’t have easy access to outdoor space.”
In their 2018 paper, Moore and Lynch* concluded that wellbeing, happiness and play are intrinsically linked:
“Findings illustrate the degree and complexity with which children understand the influences on their happiness (well-being) to be interrelated, highlighting an expanded view of play as a subjective aspect of childhood that is intrinsically connected to well-being and happiness.”
What an OPAL school had to say
I decided to speak to a school that will soon complete the OPAL Primary Programme to find out if they had reduced the time children get to play. Helen Easton, Assistant Head at Ivydale Infant’s in Islington, told me:
“No not at all. From 10.15 onwards the playground is in almost continuous use. We had improved play at the school before the pandemic and everything got better, especially concentration, relationships and behaviour. The children know we take their play seriously and it is their right. Children need the quality of play we provide here more than ever now.”
I was interested to know how the school manages the logistics of playtimes. Helen said:
“Lunch time runs for 1 hour and 45 minutes. We make sure that every child has a full hour of playtime, plus they have two fifteen-minute playtimes in the day as well. We have five bubbles and five areas, we have tried to provide resources and key points of interest for each bubble, like the sand pit or the water play and rotate them weekly”.
I was also interested to hear that not all of the impact has been negative. As a large school with a small space Helen observed:
“It feels more manageable now, children have more space and there is less noise. New children have definitely formed bonds with their classmates quicker and there is more collaborative play than before within the class.”
Trying to cope with logistics of socially distanced feeding and toilet breaks has pushed schools to their limits and, in many of our primary schools, outdoor play is likely to have been one of the casualties of the pandemic. Although this is understandable, it is counterproductive for children’s wellbeing, happiness and development. As we navigate schooling during this difficult time, we need to make sure that play is not forgotten.
Michael Follett, OPAL Director
Do you have evidence of how primary school playtimes have changes due to Covid-19? Please share with us by getting in touch or Tweeting us @OPAL_CIC.
*Alice Moore & Helen Lynch (2018) Understanding a child’s conceptualisation of well-being through an exploration of happiness: The centrality of play, people and place, Journal of Occupational Science, 25:1, 124-141, DOI: 10.1080/14427591.2017.1377105
Sport England, in their 2019 Active Lives Children and Young People study, found that the biggest motivator of physical activity in children aged between 5 and 11 is ‘Play’! Perhaps unsurprisingly playing was found by Sport England to be even more popular within this age group than team sports, swimming or any other activity. This is why Sport England and the Department for Education, which has a mission to reduce childhood inactivity, want to see every school improve their playtime provision as much as they can.
The recently updated The PE and School Sports Premium guidance reflects this shift in policy. The first two of the five key indicators are now “providing targeted activities or support to involve and encourage the least active children”, and “encouraging active play during break times and lunchtimes.”
Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) CIC exists to support schools that want to permanently transform the quality of the playtime experiences they provide to pupils every day. This support is especially critical because, when playtime provision is good enough, play promotes learning, development and healthy physical and mental wellbeing in all children, and schools are a great way to reach children effectively in vast numbers!
Around one fifth (typically 20-22%) of a school day in the UK is allocated to playtimes, yet, unlike the rest of the day, there is no policy drive to ensure that the quality of playtime provision meets any standard.
No school would employ a teacher who didn’t have the necessary qualifications, training and skills to do an excellent job for every pupil. No parent would want their child to attend such a school, so why is it accepted in 20,000+ primary schools that the people who have responsibility with supervising playtimes are allowed to do so with no proper knowledge or training? The supervision of primary school playtimes is predominantly carried out by people on minimum wages, with no management and with no clear direction from school leadership. The cost to the nation is an estimated £750 million every year. Surely the least we might expect for this money is that staff are doing the best job they can, with the necessary skills and resources?
The £245,600 of growth funding awarded by Sport England and the National Lottery to OPAL will, between May 2020 and December 2021, enable OPAL to recruit and train more Mentors located in every English region. So that all schools who want to improve their playtimes to meet the government indicators will have dedicated support available throughout their 12-18 month training programme. In addition to doubling the number of Mentors providing support to schools, the funding will enable the provision of on-line training, which will be freely accessible to all schools playtime support staff.
There will be new research published, networking and conference events, there will be lots of great ideas for staff to consider for the play environment, and there will be help available for parents and carers who want to boost play outside of school.
If you have any questions about the funding, see our FAQs.
Follow OPAL on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date with the latest news.
Schools want to improve playtimes, they may want to improve behaviour, create happier playtimes, increase physical activity or mental well-being. But it is not a matter of simply laying some playground markings, putting in a trim trail or adding a few loose parts.
Michael Follett set up OPAL – Outdoor Play and Learning – as a community interest company over five years ago. Since then, hundreds of schools across the UK, as well as schools in Canada, New Zealand and Australia have successfully completed the OPAL Primary Programme.
Here, he explains how he persuades Headteachers to invest in play development.
Guest blogger Michael Follett Director of OPAL Outdoor Play and Learning and author of Creating Excellence in Primary School Playtimes writes about the patterns of behaviours common in children’s play and how to support children to explore them.
By Neil Coleman, OPAL outdoor play and learning mentor
In our work with schools we have found that misinformed views about risk, from nearly everyone involved, is the single most damaging factor in the provision of good quality play provision in primary schools. The purpose of this blog is to help adults provide better play for children by making sure that adults’ decisions on risk are up to date with the current legal and advisory framework.
What is meant by ‘safety’ in a schools context?
Clearly the word is closely related to the term ‘Safeguarding’, so are they really the same thing? No.
The simplest way of differentiating the two is to regard Safeguarding as covering the important areas of site security, online risks, sexual risks, parenting risks (dangers at home), mental risks (bullying, etc.) and so on whereas ‘safety’ refers largely to the physical risks (though social and emotional risk also feature) that pertain to schools, both within the buildings, to be managed separately, within outdoor breaktime activities and outdoor sports/games lessons.
The easiest way to differentiate between the two types of safety management appropriate within schools is to split them between the formal (i.e. teaching/learning activities, moving around the buildings, using the infrastructure, mealtimes, when pupils are under direct adult instruction during PE and sporting activities, etc.) and informal (i.e. all occasions when children have time to themselves away from direct adult control before, during and after the formal school day, including playtime activities such as ball games, using play structures, climbing trees, building dens, using mud kitchens, running around, play-fighting) functions.
Serious behavioural issues involving pupils do not come under this criteria. As the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance clearly states, “Violence between pupils is a school discipline matter and not reportable under RIDDOR, as it does not arise out of or in connection with a work activity.”
It is the outdoor breaktime element, ‘time for play’, that this article focuses on. Playtimes typically take up around 20% of the school day, making this element one of the most significant individual parts of their life throughout the many years that a child is at school. You may therefore wonder why it is that so little attention is paid to it by the majority of schools and by the government!
Within the scope of outdoor playtime safety can be included such factors as physical development/injury, mental wellbeing (resting periods, engagement in an enjoyable activity, verbal social interactions), contact with nature (an important element in promoting children’s holistic health), personal development (empathy and inter-personal relationships, social norms, character, resilience, persistence, etc. ), learning non-teachable skills (e.g. problem-solving, inspiration and inventiveness, ‘thinking outside the box’) and evolving childhood behaviour.
Interestingly, it is the non-teachable skills that school life, especially the current curriculum, is most weak on from Reception right through to KS4 because of the emphasis on literacy and numeracy at the expense of those creative and social skills that our business community keeps telling us is what they need most right now!
Yes, of course literacy and numeracy are vitally important and should never be anything less than a top priority but, as Ofsted itself says in its December 2017 Bold Beginnings document, education should be about “getting the balance right”, and therefore weighting the scales to chase rankings in just a couple of high-profile subjects is not enough to prepare all children for the world of work in the 21st century.
In fact BB quotes a Headteacher, who says; “high standards in reading, writing and mathematics are a given, but the wider, social experiences of the school community are also important…”
So it is a fine achievement that millions of children now leave education with excellent academic qualifications for working life (though there is clearly much still to do, especially for children from deprived communities) but they also need skills in other key areas if they are to meet the needs of employers.
These skills can only be learned through playing outside every day in the right environment for learning. They cannot be effectively taught in a classroom and in sports lessons they fail to reach a large number of pupils (around 30-40%).
This improved play environment must include elements of challenge, and therefore risk, if enjoyable learning and development are to accrue in every child, which is where a competent understanding ofsafety best practice becomes crucial.
The OPAL Introduction meeting
Upon visiting a school for the first time, it usually doesn’t take long for the conversation between an OPAL Mentor and a Headteacher to turn to matters of managing ‘elf n’ safety’ during playtimes.
And soon afterwards, once the OPAL Mentor begins explaining the legal, and especially the government Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommended way that all schools should manage their playtimes in terms of children’s safety, you’ll often hear the sentence “that’s not what we were told” uttered with puzzlement by the Headteacher.
Inevitably, the next question from OPAL has to be “has anyone at this school, or anyone from the local authority who is telling you how to manage your play provision, ever actually been on a RoSPA Play Inspection Training course, or had any formal play training before?”
Invariably, the answer is ‘no’, particularly on specialised playwork training.
It is highly unlikely that a lunchtime playground supervisor (teacher or part-time staff) will have received any formal playwork training at all (organised games and skipping lessons don’t count) and the average council Health and Safety Officer/Advisor is normally only trained in ‘workplace’ safety, which is appropriate for all other parts of school property but completely inappropriate for playtime safety matters, as will be explained in more detail below.
The school’s fixed play equipment, the trim-trail, climbing frame, fixed tyres and the ‘impact absorbing’ surface below, should automatically be checked for damage and wear every few days by a trained member of school staff, and also be externally checked at least once a year (by someone independent of the school and the Local Authority who has been on the full RoSPA course – i.e. a member of the Register of Play Inspectors) but that and a bog-standard annual risk assessment are usually just about it for most schools.
Many Headteachers then assume that’s the job done and dusted, so all they have to worry about for the rest of the year is the paperwork they have been told to fill in, every time a child has a bump or a scrape. This means that for the management of one fifth of every school day (or one day each week) just about every nursery, primary and secondary school in this country is currently operating whilst completely reliant on;
1) Advice from somebody at the council whose never been trained specifically on playground management, and may well be ill-informed
2) Guesswork by the school’s own lunchtime staff, and
3) Blind luck, often topped off with a liberal coating of fear.
This is all totally contrary to current HSE advice and doesn’t follow the law correctly.
Managing playtimes safely and correctly
So what exactly is the right way to go about managing safety during playtimes?
Are you one of those schools that has been told to fill out form after form, and post them all off every time a child has a minor bump or a small cut in the playground? Or do you resist the edicts sent down from ‘on high’ and do things correctly, only reporting the most serious playtime incidents, where a hospital visit is involved?
Many schools do get it right but HSE still says it receives far too many unnecessary reports each year on minor playtime incidents that simply don’t have to be reported.
What HSE says
To unpick this confusing situation, let’s start by looking at what it says in the official Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance for schools, fully endorsed by DfE, which is where local government Health & Safety Advisors get their presumed authority from (note the changed job title of ‘advisor’, implying advice-giving only, not ‘officer’ any more, the old job title which implied some level of direct responsibility).
Those bothersome RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013)  forms from the HSE that are kept in the office and filled out for every medical incident say this;
Most incidents that happen in schools or on school trips do not need to be reported. Only in limited circumstances will an incident need notifying to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) under RIDDOR.
RIDDOR requires employers (i.e. schools) and others in control of premises to report certain accidents, diseases and dangerous occurrences arising out of or in connection with ‘work’.
The duty to notify and report rests with the ‘responsible person’. For incidents involving pupils and school staff, this is normally the main employer at the school (often the Headteacher and their school management team)
Incidents involving contractors working on school premises are normally reportable by their employers. Contractors could be builders, maintenance staff, cleaners or catering staff.
Note the emphasis on ‘work’, as separateto non-workplace activities such as play activities.
There is a dedicated series of sections below the initial statements covering those special parts of school life that are separate from classroom (and all other parts of the building) activities. They include particular guidance on school sports and on playtimes.
Not all sports injuries to pupils are reportable under RIDDOR, as organised sports activities can lead to sports injuries that are not connected with how schools manage the risks from the activity. The essential test is whether the accident was caused by the condition, design or maintenance of the premises or equipment, or because of inadequate arrangements for supervision of an activity. If an accident that results in an injury arises because of the normal rough and tumble of a game, the accident and resulting injury would not be reportable.
Most playground accidents due to collisions, slips, trips and falls are not normally reportable. Incidents are only reportable where the injury results in a pupil either being killed or taken directly to a hospital for treatment. Either is only reportable if they were caused by an accident that happened from or in connection with a ‘work activity’.
‘Work activities’ include incidents arising because either:
the condition of the premises or equipment was poor, eg badly maintained play equipment; or
the school had not provided adequate supervision, eg where particular risks were identified, but no action was taken to provide suitable supervision. e.g. where particular risks were identified by the school in a suitable and sufficient Risk Benefit Assessment (see below) and ensure suitable supervision (there are no fixed rules on ratio of staff to pupils so it comes down to the Head teacher’s judgement of what is the appropriate staffing level on that day).
Violence between pupils is a school discipline matter and not reportable under RIDDOR, as it does not arise out of, or in connection with, a work activity.
So the important point for every Headteacher to note, rarely if ever mentioned by a H&S Advisor, is that there is an important difference between what you should do in the classroom and all parts of the site where the emphasis is on ‘work activities’ (as I’ve explained above, this covers everything from moving around the building to lessons in class, PE lessons and sports), and what you should do for ‘playtime activities’, where no working is implied, other than for the safety of the working adult staff who are there to supervise the play activities.
In the OPAL Primary Programmethe OPAL Mentor will take the school lunchtime staff through the proper Risk-Benefit Assessment process for properly assessing playtime risks in Development Meeting 2.
The official guidance today
Few Local Authority Health and Safety Advisors will know about this, but as well as RIDDOR updating in 2013, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has also recently reinforced the official government guidance for playtime safety management in schools and other leisure locations with their 2012 statement Children’s Play and Leisure: Promoting a Balanced Approach.
This statement makes it very clear that:
Play is important for children’s well-being and development
When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits
Those providing play opportunities should focus on controlling the real risks, while securing or increasing the benefits – not on the paperwork
Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion
Download the guidance for the full explanation but the key point to note is that paperwork should be kept to the absolute minimum. It is the instances of serious harm, as described in RIDDOR, which staff should be watching out for.
Staff should not be getting distracted by every little bump and scrape (and not all running in with blue lights flashing every time a child starts to cry – look to check if it is really as serious as the noise suggests before you react) and if the play provision is good enough, most children should be too busy playing to notice they’ve got a scraped knee anyway! The Health and Safety Executive have a whole section of their website just dedicated to debunking health and safety myths including the one about conkers and the one about toilet roles!
Nasty head-clashes, which should be rare (at worst perhaps one or two per term?) if children are given full freedom to spread out and play across the whole of the school grounds all year round, are obviously a different situation from a bit of gravel rash on a hand, so be sensible about what you treat and what you report and you can then keep eyes where they should be, on the children at all times.
Any H&S person trying to tell a school anything other than this sensible guidance is completely out-of-date with their knowledge! Please point them towards the HSE guidance because this, and only this, is the proper advice.
What about parents?
The best way of reducing the likelihood of a civil action against a school by a distraught parent shocked by the news that a child has injured themselves (or hoping for some easy cash) is to address any concerns ahead of time, by adopting a bespoke Play Policy immediately, ahead of introducing better playtimes. All OPAL schools do this, which is how OPAL can offer clients some excellent examples to draw ideas from, so that nobody has to reinvent the wheel on this important issue.
A sound Play Policy that parents can see is actually considered a good idea by HSE too.
Talk to parents, invite them in for a presentation and chat (OPAL helps with this) and ask them for their thoughts on playtimes, and always ensure that as soon as you have a draft ready for checking, they (also governors, staff and pupils) can understand the school’s new policy on play, just as is required for all other school policies. Schools are encouraged, on a regular basis, to include the issue of ‘risky play’ in assembly, using images to spark discussions amongst pupils on what is safe to do when playing.
Risk-Benefit Assessment vs. Risk Assessment
I’ll end with a brief explanation of Risk-Benefit Assessment, for those who aren’t familiar with it.
All Risk Assessments must be carried out by someone with a good level of common sense and some experience of the issue. The term officially used is suitable and sufficient, which in the case of children’s play means that every adult is capable of making an assessment of play risks that is both suitable and also sufficient in scope to meet HSE expectations. It is because we all played throughout our childhood years that we should all be able to recognise the risks and know how to manage them sensibly.
As long as a person isn’t negligent,i.e. we identify a risk but no action was taken to put things safe immediately and put right quickly thereafter, then we are doing things as expected by HSE.
In standard risk assessments for workplaces (e.g. factories, construction sites, schools, offices, etc.) the aim is to reduce the possibility of an incident to the minimum whilst still enabling the work to function. The HSE provides a (slightly fussy) template for this, as well as there being lots of experienced Advisors around the country (large organisations will have permanent staff on the payroll) to ensure good practice. The template has been honed and developed over the past couple of decades to be little more than a straightforward risk rating calculation and a short narrative nowadays. However, it is very unlikely that typical H&S Advisors will have received specialised Risk-Benefit Assessment training for children’s play, so they are not going to be any more competent to make decisions about risks in children’s play at school than you are.
Some Local Authorities have even been known try to ‘bully’ a school into taking the path of least risk simply, as they see it, to reduce their chances of getting a claim from an upset parent to the minimum (putting money before children’s fundamental development needs?) but if you’ve followed the HSE advice above correctly, then you are already doing a far better job of reducing the risks than local authority advisors can ever offer!
Risk Benefit Assessment
Here is where you can find the template for risk-benefit assessment.
Follow the worked example for assistance but as you’ll see it is both simple and also based very much in common sense. As a principle, if you cannot immediately identify some clear and obvious benefits for children’s development and life-learning from the activity you are assessing, then it shouldn’t be there. Remove it!
All activities should be assessed at least annually but try to keep the assessment reasonably broad (i.e. assess a whole climbing structure as one, not a form for every single possible activity you can think of). Remember, the objective is to keep all paperwork to a minimum so that staff can focus on keeping children safe from serious harm.
In essence, with RBA the big difference is that there must be a recognition that children learn much (the benefits) from encountering a level of ‘managed’ challenge, introduced by you as responsible adult, which they can accrue recognised benefits from experiencing on a daily basis, should they wish to do so as they play. So the aim is to achieve a good balance between the benefits of an activity and the associated risks, not total elimination of the risks. The fact is that many beneficial play activities come with a measure of risks attached, and without children experiencing and eventually overcoming the risks there can be no worthwhile benefits.
Our role as adults is to recognise those risks, to ensure children can also recognise them (no nasty surprises) and to ensure that there are clear benefits from the risk being there.
The definition of a Risk is a Hazard (the thing that might cause injury) multiplied by the likelihood (the odds) of the incident happening.
So there might be something you can think of in a playground that would, if it happened, be very hazardous but also highly unlikely, such as a car ploughing into the site. In that case you must weigh up the value of everything and decide what to do about it, considering how serious it could be (very) by how likely it might happen (hopefully very unlikely). What you do about it is up to you but you must record your decision on the template and act accordingly. You might move the play site further from the road, put up a solid barrier, or decide that it is very unlikely to ever happen (based on history) and carry on as you are.
Likewise, there might be a very low-level hazard (e.g. stinging nettles) somewhere in your site. With lots of nettles growing around the site it becomes quite likely that a child will sting themselves from time to time.
As an action, you could decide to strim the nettles down, but that would of course eliminate the chance of children learning that nettles sting while they are at school (they’ll still find out the hard way one day, unless they are kept away from nature permanently, which is far more harmful), or you might instead teach the children about nettles and let them manage their own experiences. It’s entirely up to you.
In the end, what you should be aiming for is a good, rich and varied mix of low and medium level risks around the site that all have some obvious (to you) and different developmental or learning benefits in being there. No benefit = get rid.
Some benefits not present in what you are currently offering in your playground? Introduce features that enable accrual of those desired benefits and record your thinking on the RBA template.
Remember to review your RBAs on a regular (e.g. annual) basis but don’t write an assessment out for every little thing you do, just do it when a major new change has been introduced to the play environment.
Interestingly, the same basic advice applies to all off-site excursions by schools. You can find out more on the HSE website.
“Health and safety law in Great Britain has an enduring principle – that those who create risks are best placed to control them, and that they should do so in a reasonable and sensible way.” Judith Hackitt H&SE Chair 2015
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