Revisions on risk come to Playing it Safe

Children at the Maamatoa Kindergarten play on the play equipment during their lunch break.

This article first appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of Government News.

A 10-year update to the Australian Standard for playground equipment not only widens choices for buyers, but embraces the challenge and risk needed for better learning. Laura Boness talks to the experts.

It’s been a full decade since the Australian Standard for playground equipment last had a major revision, but changes that have come into effect are being hailed as a significant improvement by key stakeholders.

As councils and other buyers consider their choices, the door has been opened for playground owners and designers to purchase a wider range of more challenging playground equipment from both Australian manufacturers and overseas.

Released in April 2014, the new standards come in the form of AS 4685–2014. The document was a full adoption of European playground equipment standards, while taking into account Australian design and safety requirements, such as height regulations for upper body equipment and specifications for moveable equipment used in supervised early childhood services, into account. The previous Australian standard was published in 2004 and was overdue for a change, according to Professor David Eager from the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), the Engineers Australia Representative and Standards Committee chairperson.

“Not only are they 10-years-old, they’re based on documents that are even older,” says Eager, explaining that the European playground standards at that time (from which some of the Australian 2004 playground standard was adopted) were based on documents from 1998.

“The world’s moved forward considerably with play equipment since 1998,” Dr Eager says.

Embracing challenge

The latest standard should make playgrounds more challenging, encourage outdoor activity and promote fun over risk aversion – as risk taking is recognised as an essential part of healthy development and play. While this means that the element of risk has increased as a result of some of the changes, councils shouldn’t panic – because playgrounds have not become more dangerous because of the new standard.

Kay Lockhart, manager of the Kidsafe NSW Playground Advisory Unit, says that challenge is a ‘good’ risk, as it actively engages children and contributes to their cognitive, motor and social development. “Taking that risk helps them be able to cope with things better in life as an adult,” she says.

With this in mind, the specifications in AS 4685–2014 define the minimal acceptable standard for playground equipment. Importantly, they are also designed to minimise risk of injury to children using playgrounds and protect them from any hazards they may be unable to foresee when using the playground equipment. But the standards are not intended to remove obvious risks, like exposure to heights, which allow children to develop a sense of what is safe or unsafe.

“The standard is not designed to put children in cotton wool,” says PlayTest’s Grant Humphreys, who represented the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia on the Committee. “There needs to be risk for children to develop their own sense of boundaries. Through play they learn their own limits and discover what they can and can’t do.”

Heightened expectations

The most obvious change in the revised standard is the increased maximum free height of fall from 2.5 metres to 3.0 metres, an increase that had already been adopted in European standards before Australian playground equipment standards were last reviewed in 2004. However, according to Professor Eager, in the early 2000s the Committee felt there increasing the free height of fall to 3.0 metres was a step to far as there was insufficient evidence to support this radical change.

Ten years later, he says, there is now evidence from Europe that the frequency of injuries had not increased because of the greater fall height and, although the Committee will rethink the increased height in the Australian standard if it turns out that there is an issue, he’s confident that they haven’t made a wrong decision in increasing the maximum height.

This increased height is actually good news for Councils, who are being urged not to worry about the changes to playground equipment in the new standard for playground equipment as they won’t immediately be affected by this change – most of the playground equipment that complied with the 2004 standards will also comply with the specifications of AS 4685–2014. Instead, the changes give them the option in the future to import or design equipment that’s slightly higher and therefore more challenging, which will encourage children to play outdoors in an environment that’s more stimulating and help them develop important skills for life.

“Some of the more challenging designs have not been available in Australia due to the restriction of height of the equipment,” Mr Humphreys says. “These will now be available with the introduction of the new standard.”

Andrew Reedy from Play Check, who represented the Australian Industry Group on the Playgrounds Standards Committee, shares this view, saying that Councils are often looking for opportunities to provide a greater variety of play experiences in their parks. “The increase in the maximum allowable free height of fall allows the introduction of a greater variety of playground equipment.”

Manufacturers, playground designers and Councils will also benefit from the change in the minimum size of the impact (fall) zones required around playground equipment. Evidence indicates that, even with the increased height, children who do fall are falling straight down rather than landing further away from the equipment, so the standards Committee have adopted the same minimum impact area specified in the European standards. This change will allow Councils and designers to either add more equipment in the space available or, as surfacing is one of greatest costs in setting up playground equipment, reduce the overall cost of equipment and set-up.

Professor Eager hopes that the new standard will have a positive effect, not only for Councils, but also for manufacturers. Adjusting the Australian standards to conform to those overseas will remove trade barriers for compliant importers – but it will also open a door for local manufacturers to export their products overseas. While equipment from overseas is now more likely to meet Australian standards and can be imported, domestic manufacturers won’t be penalised by the removal of this trade barrier. “We’ve made our standard slightly easier to comply with than the European standard, so our manufacturers aren’t being disadvantaged,” Professor Eager says.

The standards Committee considered the impact of the introduction of the standard on Australian manufacturers and took into account the fact that a straight adoption of the European standard may penalise them by causing significant costs associated with re-tooling, according to Mr Reedy. He added that some of the deviations from the European standard, like the retention of a 800 mm maximum opening on platforms instead of adopting the European maximum of 500 mm, reflect this decision.

“The Committee saw no increase in safety by adopting the dimensions used in the European standard; however a change form current practice may have led to the significant costs in re-tooling and the manufacture of new moulds,” he says.

The new standard also differs in some ways from the European Standard to better suit Australian conditions; monkey bars, for example, cause the highest number of playground-associated injuries in Australia. As a result, the Australian Standards Committee has kept the maximum height of monkey bars and other upper body equipment at 2.2 metres, instead of raising it to 3.0 metres, in recognition of these statistics.

Additionally, the new standards divide the equipment into three categories instead of the European two, with the addition of the supervised early childhood category. This covers the moveable equipment installed for children under school age in an educational environment and will ensure that the equipment will be set up and used properly, says Ms Lockhart. She feels that there was a need for this category to be recognised, as she has seen many examples of equipment not being set up correctly or safely.

The other main category, all ages, which encompasses public playgrounds, has been divided into ‘easily accessible’ and ‘not easily accessible’ sub-categories, using ability-based filters for the equipment. ‘Easily accessible equipment’ can be accessed and used by younger children or those with a disability (referred to a 36 month old child using ability rather then age), while the ‘not easily accessible’ equipment is intended for use by older children, as it has fewer guardrails and barriers. This provides older children with a greater challenge and, according to Professor Eager, ‘removes the bubble wrap’.

There are ability-based filters on the equipment in the not easily accessible category, like the 600 mm step height, so that children who fall into the first category can’t access it. Furthermore, these two categories of equipment can’t be connected within a playground, so children without the necessary ability can’t access them. However, the standards Committee does recognise that children don’t immediately transition to being able to use more difficult equipment as they grow and assumes parents will help children access the more difficult equipment and supervise them while they are learning to use it, providing them with an extra measure of safety.

Ms Lockhart says that Kidsafe applauds the Australian Standards for adopting this standard based on the evidence; she thinks the changes are good news, as they will provide playground designers and Councils with the option of installing a wider variety of equipment. Kidsafe are instead more concerned about getting the message out to concerned parents, Councils and others worried about the increased risks that these specified changes are safe. “Yes, there is an element of extra danger, but I’d rather call it risk and challenge,” Ms Lockhart says.

Professor Eager cautioned Councils that the increased to 3.0 metres meant the performance verification of the playground surface was now an order of magnitude more critical. The ramification of a surface failing to attenuate a fall from a 3.0 metre fall were considerable worse than 2.5 metres both in the frequency and severity of injuries. He stated “Council’s that failed to test the as installed surface were playing a game Russian roulette – not testing the install surface is equivalent to driving a V8 with faulty brakes”.


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