This morning Kathryn Ryan on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon programme had a 20 minute conversation with Catherine Hamilton, the landscape architect responsible for designing the Margaret Mahy Family Playground in Christchurch (which features as the sole entry on the Kiwi Play Safe Christchurch Playgrounds of Concern list – and if you follow that link you’ll read some of the many complaints I’ve received about the lack of fencing there, and the frustration felt by parents who can’t safely take their children there to play). I heard the second half of it in the car, but heard it in full online – you can listen to it here.

Ms Hamilton sounded justifiably proud of the playground, which had over 100,000 visitors in its first month, and is now thought to be the largest playground in the Southern Hemisphere. She spoke at length about the design process, which involved input from 6,000 children, and also mentioned how some elements of the playground referenced stories both from local authors and from local iwi. She also explained the relevance and significance of the site itself, and the implications of its size. There was then a conversation about risk and play. Ms Hamilton explained the ebb and flow of New Zealand’s attitudes to risk in playgrounds. She used a good metaphor of an hourglass:

  • Before the 1980s, people were very tolerant of risk in play (and at this point Ms Ryan spoke in a nostalgic manner familiar to all of us aged forty or over, about how she and her friends used to play on the edge of a quarry – but not, I suspect, when she was a toddler or a preschooler);
  • In 1986 New Zealand adopted joint playground safety standards with Australia, which emphasised risk aversion and resulted in a plethora of identikit cookie-cutter ‘safe’ playgrounds throughout the country (in other words, the tolerance of risk in play ‘narrowed’);
  • From 2004 New Zealand adopted European standards regarding playground design, which enables more challenging play spaces to be designed, and a shift in emphasis from risk prevention to risk management. The tolerance of risk in play had broadened, in light of the growing recognition that risk is an important part of child development.

I’ve written about risk and play before. In case anybody needs a reminder, here’s the official Kiwi Play Safe position:

Risk is an essential part of play for younger children, and good playgrounds should (and do) provide it. However, the element of risk should come from within the playground – not from the area surrounding it.

At this point in the Nine to Noon conversation – at around 15:15 on the recording – the conversation led to the topic of the lack of fencing around the playground. Here’s a transcript of both participants’ remarks, verbatim aside from the omitted ‘ums’:

KR: “Speaking of risk also, was there part of the brief that said ‘Put a fence around this playground! Terrible things will happen!’ And what happened?”

CH: “Yes, well, in fact that was one of my areas of resistance [laughs] – there weren’t too many, but early on I think the client was very concerned about the colocation of a play site with a river, quite rightly, and the fact that it fronts onto three streets, and there was also a concern about vagrants if you like, and unsavoury people coming and using the playground for unintended purposes at night-time, so there was this, I guess, harking back to that risk aversion era, there was this concern that, if we didn’t fence the playground off, all sorts of terrible things might happen, both in terms of people coming in, and kids going out. I immediately resisted that – I thought ‘fence equals defence, equals negative signal’, and so the way that I thought we could resolve it was to articulate the spaces so that parents and adults have really good sight lines and surveillance over the space, so that they can watch their children without them disappearing out of sight. Things like bringing CCTV cameras into the site for night time use, and also as it turned out a security person is stationed there at night time. And so I got my own way, and we didn’t have a fence put up initially, although that was really intended to be a trial period, but what has actually transpired is that the level of use – and urban designers and landscape know this – the level of use is so great that in actual fact it’s self-monitoring and self-fencing.”

KH: “You don’t need it – it’s like, you know, you’re going for a run – I think of Hagley Park, not too far away – and if you’re passing a runner every hundred metres, there’s your security. If it’s in constant use.”

With the greatest respect to Kathryn Ryan and Catherine Hamilton, I think they have both misinterpreted why so many parents want this playground to be fenced. Here are my thoughts in response to their comments.

  • It’s very frustrating to hear Ms Hamilton freely acknowledge the hazards near this playground – the river, and the three roads – but then gloss over the risk that they represent to children.
  • I know very few parents who worry about ‘undesirable people’ coming into playgrounds. In all of the hundreds of comments I’ve been sent about playgrounds, I can only think of one that mentioned ‘weirdos’. We are rational people: we know that there aren’t baddies lurking on every corner, trying to snatch our children. Using that as a debating point when discussing the fencing of playgrounds is a real straw man argument, in my opinion. It’s not about stopping people from coming in: it’s about stopping our children from getting out.
  • Ms Hamilton has equated fencing a playground to being against risk in play. At the risk of sounding like a broken record: that is NOT what this issue all about. It is great for kids to have risk in play. It is not great for kids to be at risk from traffic, dogs, open water, or other environmental hazards near playgrounds, particularly when they are toddlers or preschoolers – easily distracted, difficult to reason with, and prone to shoot away at a moment’s notice. And this playground has been designed for children of all ages, so it should ensure the safety (from the hazards mentioned above) for all of its users.
  • That whole ‘fence equals defence’ comment from Ms Hamilton once against focuses on the idea that fencing a playground is designed to keep people out. That is incorrect. Far from being a ‘negative signal’, a fence around a playground is a hugely positive signal to the parents who want to use it with their children: it tells them that their children will be free to run around and play, without them having to hover over them (or give up and take them all home, never to return again, which has certainly happened with several people who have visited this particular playground).
  • While ‘really good sight lines and surveillance’ are an excellent idea in any playground, they are no help at all if you can see your two three year olds running in opposite directions, both towards one of the three busy roads or the river that surround it.
  • The information about CCTV and security guards in order to keep the space ‘safe’ at night-time is entirely irrelevant to the parents who want to take their kids to the playground during the day. It’s also entirely irrelevant to the real reason why parents want fenced playgrounds: because they keep kids in a safe environment while playing.
  • The large level of use does not serve as a substitute for fencing the playground. It’s ‘self-monitoring and self-fencing’ if you are only concerned with keeping the mythical ‘baddies’ out – and that’s not what Kiwi Play Safe is about. And a huge, busy playground makes it even more difficult for parents to keep track of the whereabouts of their young children. I do not want to rely on parents I do not know to be the last line of defence between my running toddler and a busy road, or the river, particularly as those parents have their own children to watch. This is why fenced playgrounds are a Good Thing.
  • Ms Ryan’s final comments continued to reinforce the idea that fencing a playground was only intended to protect people from weirdos.

It really frustrates me that a misguided red herring ideology equating fencing a playground to preventing risk in play has resulted in this amazing community facility being effectively out-of-bounds for so many parents. Just think of who might not be able to enjoy it, because they don’t want to deal with the very real risk of their children leaving the site, or the potentially catastrophic consequences if their child ends up in front of a passing car, or in the river:

  • Parents of multiples, or parents of more than one young child of different ages;
  • In-home caregivers who tend to care for two or three young children at a time;
  • Solo parents of more than one young child;
  • Parents of autistic children, or children with learning difficulties (of all ages), who might find it difficult to follow instructions about staying close;
  • Parents of hearing-impaired children;
  • Disabled parents who are not able to sprint after a running toddler or preschooler;
  • Grandparents raising grandchildren; and
  • Grandparents who simply want to take their grandchildren out for a trip to the park.

While it’s wonderful that this beautiful, hugely expensive playground has been so popular, perhaps it’s time to think more carefully about who isn’t able to go, and why. And here’s my big question about the Margaret Mahy Family Playground: setting aside the red herring ‘fencing a playground = an aversion to risk in play’ argument, is there any way in which user enjoyment of the playground would be diminished if it was fenced? I don’t think so.

Join the campaign for better playgrounds for Kiwi kids – follow Kiwi Play Safe on Facebook