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Managing risk in children’s play

Recently a child (I think a 9 year old) drowned in a Warwickshire pond. This is of course a tragic loss of life and my thoughts go out to the family of the child.

This however raises some questions about what measures should be taken to prevent these tragic events from happening again. It was reported on the local radio that local residents said that this was an “accident waiting to happen”, that there were no fences to keep children out or signs to indicate the risk.

I’m not convinced that this would have made much difference. I’ve not actually seen the pond in question, so this is just my opinion about ponds, rivers, lakes, canals and all water sources in general. In fact this applies to anywhere where a risk is present, not just water based risks.

The first thing is to remember when I was a child. Would a sign saying “danger” have stopped me from going to somewhere? Unlikely. I’m sure that would just add to the thrill of being there. What about a fence? If it was a wooden fence typically used for separating a footpath from private land then it could be easily stepped over. Perhaps if it was 6 foot high metal railings with spikes on top then it may have stopped people going through for a while, but just until one of the railings became broken off leaving a gap through. It may be possible to physically stop a child from getting into a dangerous place on a temporary basis (most building sites are quite good for that these days), but a determined child will get through eventually, and then it just adds to the appeal.

Other issues would be the cost of implementing this, covering every water area. The restrictions this would cause for other users, including recreational use and even the wildlife that lives in and around the water. Then there is the way that this destroys the natural beauty of these sites. As a photographer it would ruin any photo opportunities. All this and it still wouldn’t get around the fact that far more children die on the roads compared with drowning incidents.

So what could help? The first thing is education. Children are already told about the dangers of water, but perhaps this needs to be reinforced a bit more. Perhaps giving real examples of children and indeed adults who have died in these sort of incidents.

The other thing, which now goes beyond risks of water alone, is to have places where children can play which have managed risks. Essentially play areas that aren’t completely risk free. It may seam as though this is contradictory to preventing injury, but the idea is to take children away from places that are completely unmanaged and encourage them to places with the same thrill, but less danger.

An example would be that instead of children creating their own rope swing to have a safer one provided for them. I’m sure many children (including myself when I was younger) have played on rope swings which were created by children using a bit of rope that they acquired. The ones that children make may go out over steep drops, or over rivers and ponds, and put them into a high level of risk. Instead a rope swing could be provided, which is properly secured, using rope that is strong enough, and would swing over an area that is less dangerous if the child fell. This wouldn’t remove the risk completely, a bad landing could still result in a sprained or even broken leg for the child, but these would be less frequent and would be far safer than if they had fallen into a river, or down a long drop.

The whole idea is that they provide enough risk to make it interesting and fun for the children, but that the risk is managed to prevent serious injuries that may otherwise occur if the children were left to their own devices.

There is an example of a managed risk play area at Coombe Abbey near Coventry. I haven’t seen the play area in detail, but it certainly sounds like a good idea. It’s just a shame that these are so few and far between, and inaccessible to children except by having their parents take them there.

My point is that tragic as the child’s death was the gut reaction of lets fence it off will not necessarily solve the problem in the long term. What is needed is for places where risk can be managed, but where children can still play and find it interesting.