Inspecting your adventure playground

As practitioner-led structure building declines, Rob Wheway of the Children’s Play Advisory Service explains how inspection training is part of a renaisance of this quintessential feature of the traditional adventure playground.

Over the course of its history, adventure play has had a variety of attributes promulgated as its defining practice ethos, with different aspects taking prominence at different times, as fashion – both in playwork and in the wider zeitgeist – fluctuates. First ‘risky play’ takes the limelight, then ‘creative play’, before ‘natural play’ wrestles it away for a while … and so it goes on.

Whichever way the zeitgeist goes, though, it is an abiding characteristic of adventure playgrounds that they are made and built by playworkers. The ethos of adventure play is self-build: playworkers build them, and playworkers are responsible for them.

However, many playworkers are currently employed on adventure playgrounds that have either not been rebuilt for some years, or where contractors have been used in preference to training the workforce in the relevant skills.

Such practitioners, having had no role in the building of their playgrounds, are in a difficult position. This was highlighted of the recent case involving the failure of a piece of ‘self-build’ equipment (which had, in fact, been placed by a contractor) and which had not been adequately inspected.  It was this case which probably propelled the furore with an insurance company a couple of years ago, and led to headlines that adventure play is too dangerous to insure.

Upskilling the workforce

The response to this turn of events could be to further deskill the workforce and deaden the adventure playground with rigidity – no more self-build, no more flexibility, no more children ‘spoiling’ bought equipment with hammers and nails … Or, it could be to develop further methodologies to overcome insurers’ fears and to upskill the workforce’s competence in caring for and developing the play environments they provide.

In pursuance of the latter, the short course ‘Inspecting your Adventure Playground’ has been developed by the Children’s Play Advisory Service, which is recognised as one of the foremost resources for health and safety expertise in both the fixed-equipment and adventure play fields.

This course is designed to provide a framework for playworkers to both perform operational inspections of their playsites, and keep an ongoing paper trail as evidence that due care has been taken to repair and maintain the attendant structures.  This both ensures that the site remains in an acceptable state between annual inspections, and covers the organisation and workforce against claims of negligence in the event of unexpected and unforeseeable catastrophe.

Piloted with playworkers

The course has been piloted with playworkers running adventure playgrounds, mostly to a good reception. Participants have commented, “I thought the information given on this course was relevant in order for playworkers to have a better understanding of how to keep a playground safe” and, “Very informative… all adventure playground staff need this training.”  However, there remains some confusion over operational inspection, dynamic risk assessment and annual, independent inspection.

The course is not a substitute for annual, independent, inspection by a competent and qualified person.  Its methodology works in tandem with independent inspection and is intended to overcome the tendency, which overworked playworkers may have, to put the independent inspection, once completed, aside until the following year, in order to avoid the onerous and laborious tick-box sheets which can become robotic, not really checks at all; or the tendency to do the checks, but not to record them. Neither does its methodology work the same as dynamic risk assessment, which is a process for judging actions in the provision, rather than a system for recording the physical safety of the provision itself.

As there is currently no accrediting body for courses in playwork (which the Playwork Foundation and others are working to remedy) the current ‘Inspecting your Playground’ course does not carry a qualification. It does, however, both equip playworkers with the tools to prove competence should the need arise and, more importantly, mitigate against such eventualities by enabling them to be more fully responsible for their own sites.

Rob Wheway
Children’s Play Advisory Service (CPAS)

For more information contact Rob Wheway, Director of CPAS. on whewayr@gmail.com or 024 7650 3540


Ali Wood of the Playwork Foundation adds…

The Playwork Foundation has heard from a number of playworkers in adventure playgrounds with self-build structures about how best to inspect and maintain these to ensure they remain safe. We, therefore, want to promote the course run by the Children’s Play Advisory Service, ‘Inspecting Adventure Playgrounds’ that enables playworkers to do just that. 

At Meriden AP, for example (where I am a trustee), we are currently having to deal with a personal injury claim regarding a child who came on her first visit and broke her leg at the bottom of a slide constructed from large tunnel piping several years earlier.  Had our staff not done this course with Rob Wheway and Simon Rix, we may well have had difficulty providing the necessary evidence for both the solicitor and the insurance company, to show we were not negligent in both checking and maintaining this slide and all our other structures in a meaningful way. 

We were also able to call on Rob Wheway for the extra information we needed regarding what the law does and doesn’t require of us regarding self-build structures and his help was invaluable. I would really urge AP playworkers to do this course so you really know the ongoing condition of your structures both above and below ground and can be sure they are therefore safe.

Ali Wood

Ali Wood is a playwork trainer and writer who is a trustee both of the Playwork Foundation and Meriden Adventure Playground.

Images: Meriden Adventure Playground

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