Adopting a Risk Benefit Approach in Play Provision

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When we introduce loose parts into school environments the level of risk increases.  Because of this we encourage providers to take appropriate steps in adopting a risk benefit approach, taking into account the benefits the provision offers as well as the risks.   In terms of an organisation developing and implementing an effective and robust risk benefit approach to support play there are five areas that should give consideration to with regards approach to practice and policy.

Law & National Policy

Organisations are governed under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 which places a duty on employers  “to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work” of all employees.

Whilst this law is an essential requirement for the workplace it has shrouded play provision and play providers with confusion around interpretation and commonly resulting in over cautiousness working practices. Lord Youngs review of the of the Health & Safety At Work Act: Common Sense Common Safety Report 2012 stated that with regards to children’s play areas:

‘A further area of concern is the impact of health and safety on children’s play areas. In legal terms, play provision is guided by the Health and Safety at Work etc Act.  There is a widely held belief within the play sector that misinterpretations of the Act are leading to the creation of uninspiring play spaces that do not enable children to experience risk. Such play is vital for a child’s development and should not be sacrificed to the cause of overzealous and disproportionate risk assessments.

This is a further example of how legislation primarily conceived to be applied in a hazardous environment is being brought into an environment for which it is unsuited with damaging consequences.’

I believe that with regard to children’s play we should shift from a system of risk assessment to a system of risk–benefit assessment, where potential positive impacts are weighed against potential risk.  These ideas inform the play programme developed by the Department for Education and Department for Culture, Media and Sport and I would like to see them developed more widely. Furthermore we should consider reviewing the Health and Safety at Work etc Act to separate out play and leisure from workplace contexts.’

The play programme referred to in this report was Managing Risk in a Play Provision published by Play England in 2012 on behalf of the Play Safety Forum which exists to consider and promote the wellbeing of children and young people through ensuring a balance between safety, risk and challenge in respect of play and leisure provision.  The guide outlines how play providers can replace current risk assessment practice with an approach that fully takes into account the benefits to children and young people of challenging play experiences. The document's overall approach is extremely useful for those who manage spaces and settings in which children play, and for those involved in designing and maintaining them.

 ‘Risk-taking is an essential feature of play provision, and of all environments in which children and young people legitimately spend time at play. Play provision aims to offer children and young people the chance to encounter acceptable risks as part of a stimulating, challenging and controlled learning environment.’ Managing Risk in Play Provision: A position statement

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has also worked with the Play Safety Forum to produce Childrens Play & Leisure Promoting a Balanced Approach.  This a joint high-level statement that gives clear messages tackling these misunderstandings. HSE fully endorses the principles in this Statement:

  • Play is important for children’s well-being and development

  • When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits

  • Those providing play opportunities should focus on controlling the real risks, while securing or increasing the benefits – not on the paperwork

  • Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion

Finally the Playwork Principles underpin playwork practice for the sector and establish the professional and ethical framework for playwork and as such must be regarded as a whole. They describe what is unique about play and playwork and provide the playwork perspective for working with children and young people. They are based on the recognition that children and young people’s capacity for positive development will be enhanced if given access to the broadest range of environments and play opportunities.

Local Authority Policy

Local authority policy enables the key ethos and understanding from the national policy and makes its relevant in specific locality, establishing play providers with a clear framework of practice and procedure.  At the time of writing there sadly not many active policies due to significant cutbacks from central government.  However, there are many advantages for local authorities adopting a play policy including:

  • Consistency of principles

  • Focus on children

  • Transparency

  • local commitment

  • A necessary first step

  • A basis for quality

  • A foundation for safety practice

  • A framework for the allocation of resources

  • Consistency between training and practice

Extract from Bath and North East Somerset Play Policy

Organisational Policy

An organisational policy sets out the ethos and commitment to play and daily procedures around play and risk which should be informed by the local and national policy frameworks. 


A policy should initially set out the terms of the document, what it’s about, why it’s been written and what strategies or policies it is informed by or underpins it:

It should establish an ethos of what values it believes play is and 

followed up with organisational commitment statements about play around established themes such as:

  • Risk & Self-Management

  • Children’s Rights

  • Inclusion

  • Improvements to the physical environment

  • Improvements to the human environment


Formal Risk Benefit Assessments

These are written documents by the organisation that bring together the consideration of risks and benefits in a setting and then decide on appropriate responses or necessary controls that need to be adopted.  A formal risk benefit assessment needs to establish the following:

  • The hazards and subsequent risks that may arise from this. 

  • Calculate the risk level.  There are various models of approach that take into account the severity of injury and the likelihood of this occurring. Note that this judgement should be based on the previous knowledge and judgement not by the worst-case scenario

  • The benefits of allowing the activity to go ahead

  • Any controls (actions) that need to implemented if the activity goes ahead

For more information, Playwork Partnerships have some useful information on their website regarding how to develop this, also the Play Safety Forum Risk Benefit Assessment Worked Example provides a very in-depth example of a risk benefit assessment but helps provide some context.

Writing risk benefit assessments does create issues for play providers around interpretation and judgement, which Professor Ball outlines in his ‘risk benefit balance’ diagram. On the one hand the good things are associated with play are difficult to quantify, whereas the bad things are, accidents, costs, litigation which are all too real.

Risk benefit balance.jpg

‘Alternatively, it would be possible to set out rules of thumb for assigning numerical values to both benefits and risks. Such scoring processes are fairly common in conventional risk assessment (though not benefit assessment, which is seldom done) in both the workplace and play provision.

 The most fundamental problem is that the benefits are of a different nature from the risks and are therefore not easily compared.  It is also highly likely that any scoring process will vary widely depending on the scorer and will not give reliable results. Assessment of benefits (and for that matter risks) also has to take account of local circumstances, and will draw on the provider’s policy, which provides the framework for weighing risks against benefits. Such an approach is likely to lead to over-reliance on paperwork and bureaucratic procedures, rather than the more considered approach needed in decisions involving value judgements.’

Dynamic Risk Benefit Assessments

Both the police and fire brigade use dynamic risk assessments which enables them to adapt to different and changing situations they may find themselves in. This dynamic approach also applies to children’s play too, as play, by its very nature is fluid and unpredictable.

Dynamic risk benefit assessments in are done by staff supporting the play and are based on what is happening at any one time.  Being sensitive to the playwork principles and intervention styles whilst at the same time making sure children don’t seriously hurt themselves is a difficult skill to develop but improves with confidence.  Talking openly about potential risks of activities helps children develop essential life skills in risk management. For more information, Playwork Partnerships have some useful information on their website regarding how to develop this practice.

If you would like any support adopting a risk benefit approach Scrapstore Play Services offers a range of playwork training for schools and playwork settings that focus on helping children to take risk in play.  Phone us on 0117 9143002