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South Africa’s playground safety re-evaluated

Senior Landscape Architect, Lizelle Wolmarans at GIBB, one of South Africa’s leading black-owned engineering consulting firms, presented a paper on child safety in playgrounds at the three-day Congress for the Institute of World Urban Parks (WUP) and Environment and Recreation Management (IERM) in Cape Town last month. Leading parks professionals and parks agencies from around the world resolving to protect and enhance the world’s urban parks and green spaces in the face of looming global challenges was present at this Congress.

The paper, titled Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development focused on the construction of playgrounds, safety and safety standards of equipment used in playgrounds as well as the influence it has on physical and mental child development. Play experts such as Environmental Psychologists, Child Development Specialists, Landscape Architects and Educators are advocating a re-assessment of the play environment.

While the safety of children should never be neglected, Wolmarans explained the dangers of being over-protective as potentially detrimental to a child’s development.

“Our environment is not without risk and therefore, we need to learn how to manage risk continuously as a survival skill. However, where risk is eliminated from playgrounds, challenge is eliminated leading to boredom where children may potentially feel the need to take excessive risk using equipment inappropriately that can cause unintentional injury,” said Wolmarans.

South Africa has adopted the international playground safety standards, these standards are not legalised but serve as a guideline to prevent hazardous risks. Locally, our decisions need to be influenced by security, economy and future sustainability. In the case of security, it is a fact that children are living in dangerous environments in their homes and neighbourhoods. Some of the dangers are traffic, kidnapping, crime and drugs. Supervision and maintenance is also a concern.

Wolmarans explained that a new method of assessing risks should be developed where a Risk Benefit Assessment needs to be done alongside the hazardous risk inspection.

An important point is that hazardous risks, which is the source of harm that is not obvious to the child, should be eliminated. However, there should be an element of risk so that a child recognises and evaluates the challenge, and decides on a course of action that is not dangerous but still involves an element of risk. The challenge for engineers responsible for designing the playground landscape to balance the safety without eliminating the risks.

So, what does the future hold for South Africa’s playgrounds? More focus should go into making the entire park safe and accessible for children of all ages to be able to play without crime or traffic hazards. Less focus should be on play units and making equipment so safe, that it becomes a sterile environment that is not conducive to learning.

“A successful playground will be easily identified. It is the one where children play for hours and where parents stay longer, giving children more time to play.” Wolmarans concluded.