Guest Column - October 2014
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Design Corner

Adventurous Play
Pushing the Edge Without Falling Off

By Eric Hornig

As the world becomes more fascinated with ever-increasing levels of danger like those portrayed in reality TV, X-games, videogames and the nightly news, it is only natural that children or their caregivers are seeking more adventurous means of play. Play environments that include rocks, ropes, zip lines, extreme slides and heights never before considered have definitely increased in popularity over the past 10 years and do not seem to be at their peak yet. The only challenge is that the tolerance for actual danger is lessening. The opposing goals of more perceived adventure but less actual danger have left the recreation community dipping their toes in the water, wondering what lies beneath.

So you have an idea for a unique custom extreme play space that will put your agency on the map. It has full local support, is richly funded and will fit right in to your overall system. You have never done anything like this before (and are not sure if anyone has). How do you pull it off and make sure it is absolutely safe?

Danger: Hazard vs. Risk

Safety is a baseline, right? If it is not safe, it is wrong, period. As a dad and designer, this is generally my initial reaction to safety questions. It is impossible to justify something trendy or cool as you wipe the tears of a child from their cheeks after a fall. Designer babble will not stand up very well in a court when simple precautions could have been taken to improve safety. So let's avoid that.

First, let's take a minute to define a few subsets of danger. We have hazard, which is an unforeseen condition that could be dangerous to the user. An example might be broken glass hidden beneath play surfacing, or surfacing that has deteriorated to less than what is needed for impact attenuation. The user has no easy way to discern that they may be in danger and therefore no means to protect themselves or avoid the hazard.

Risk is a condition that could also be dangerous to the user, but it is obvious and can be chosen freely, with the consequences of failure readily identifiable. An example of this might be a tall rock climber or a skatepark ramp. It is clear that a risk is present and that, if undertaken, a fall could occur. You have to apply some common sense to this (another form of danger), but generally risk is a self chosen action.

Hazards are not acceptable in a play environment, but risk is encouraged. This is a little counterintuitive, but we need risk to grow. We need to be able to take minor risks with ever-increasing consequences to build physical, mental and social skill sets. Walking across a balance beam that is six inches from the safety surfacing is a risk to a toddler, just as scaling an 18-foot rope net is a risk to a young teen, just as buying that investment stock might be to you.

What Does Safety Mean to You?

One thing that is clear about safety: It means something different to everyone. Just ask your spouse, parents or energetic 8-year-old if they think something marginal is safe. Different backgrounds, life experiences, parenting styles and local environment will cloud even the clearest of questions. Recognizing that you likely have a diverse constituent base, how on earth could you meet everyone's expectations?

Of course, the answer is that you can't, but a good starting place is to ask. Be sure to include the public through open forums and focus groups when designing your custom space. You may find that they want extreme challenges beyond your imagination, or you may find that they are perfectly happy with their compliant metal and plastic deck structure and would just like the new version. After all, it is their community and their playground, so hear them out. Be sure to include children, teachers, parents, coaches and community leaders in the groups, as well as your own staff who have probably seen it all when it comes to playgrounds. Most importantly for staff, they know what they will be able to maintain, which can have a significant influence on safety.

This is also your chance to begin changing their behavior patterns if you do add a feature that is challenging. Maybe they have to lay off their cell phone at this park and assist their children, or maybe their smaller child should be directed to another nearby location, or maybe they can finally bring their teen with them.

Another good idea is to get your risk carrier involved. As people who tabulate and quantify risk for a living, they will most certainly have some ideas about what they feel comfortable insuring. It is best to do this early in the process, and will be difficult to illustrate for them, but the more input the better. This kind of proactive communication will likely be foreign to them, but will be appreciated without question.