The result has been an injection of cash from regeneration consortia and lottery funding bodies, which have plugged around £400m of the parks funding gap since their launch. A sizeable chunk of that money is being spent on play equipment.
Child Accident Prevention Trust play safety adviser Rob Wheway believes play equipment has a vital role.
“Good play equipment can rejuvenate communities. It can draw people into parks, encourage children’s social development and create a hub for the local community,” he says.
It is vital to get the right kind of play equipment, and most of the products on the market are relatively conventional. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA ) lists the basic types: slides; climbing frames; rockers (such as see saws or the rocking animals on springs found in most parks); rotating equipment (roundabouts); swings; and balancing equipment (such as chain bridges).
The format of these items has changed dramatically, however. They look more exciting and often work in new, entertaining ways. For example, roundabouts always used to be simple rotating platforms. Now they’re likely to involve children swinging from handrails.
There are other factors to consider when buying equipment. Under the
Disability Discrimination Act, reasonable provision has to be made for equal opportunities for disabled people, except where it affects the safety of
others. It is illegal to treat the disabled less favourably than the able-bodied.
The important word here is “reasonable”. Obviously, disabled children won’t be able to use all the equipment. But there should be some activities in any playground that a disabled child — perhaps with help from a carer — can enjoy. For example, a disabled child might be able to sit on a roundabout or rockers, and playhouses can be designed so that children in wheelchairs can access parts of them. All areas of the playground should have wheelchair access, so that disabled children can still enjoy the company of their friends, even if they can’t use the equipment themselves.
Another factor to consider is the agegroup using the equipment. A feature that would be suitable for toddlers — such as an enclosed swing — would be quite useless for an older child.
Well-designed equipment will encourage physical development — strength, dexterity and sense of balance. It will also facilitate social development, says sales office manager Daniel Orpin of play equipment supplier Wicksteed.
“Often, children want to talk and play with each other. An item such as a multi-use platform or bridge will allow them to devise games,” he adds.
Social development can be encouraged with tubes that children can speak through. Wicksteed produces a range of “talking flowers” for children to whisper to each other across the playground.
Most importantly, the equipment should be challenging. RoSPA play safety manager David Yearly explains:
“If you make the equipment too safe, children won’t use it. Then they end up swinging from trees and gates or playing in an environment that isn’t safe.”
Some firms specialise in equipment that is deliberately intended to appeal to the more adventurous teenage
market. The “Dynamic” range by French firm Proludic allows youngsters to swing from straps, balance on boards and spin each other around.
Furthermore, having realised that most teenagers feel alienated from parks, many firms have created teen shelters, where they can hang out, chat and simply relax in a safe setting where activities can be supervised easily.
Local authorities, schools and private parks have to take the necessary safety precautions, but this doesn’t mean the playgrounds can’t be fun. In fact, playgrounds are extremely safe places. Although the Department of Trade & Industry estimates there are around 40,000 accidents at playgrounds a year that require some kind of medical attention, most of these are simple scratches and bruises. There is just one fatal accident every two years and many of these are freak occurrences. Yearly says: “The most recent playground fatality involved a nine-year-old girl, who slipped and broke her neck while running along a concrete path. It is impossible to remove all elements of danger.”
The most important European Safety Standard for playgrounds is EN1177. This sets the standard for the playground surface, so that softer and more bouncy surfaces are laid down around higher equipment.
David Yearly believes that a good safety regime is the best defence against legal problems. “If people have accidents, they often try to claim against the playground. But if you’ve followed all the best practice, claims are likely to
disappear. Lawyers see that the claims are not worth pursuing.”
There is one other consideration to take into account. For many years, well-meaning planners would install play equipment and then wonder why it was little-used or even vandalised. Most experts now accept that it is important to consult the local community before making any major changes — a view backed up by research from the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (CABE).
A representative of public realm agency CABE Space says it is common for local authorities to take a church hall and invite two or three suppliers to display their products. He explains: “Consultation may not seem important, but it gives people a sense of ownership.”
If you get the right play equipment in the right place, with the consent of the local population, it can provide a community asset that more than repays the initial investment.
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