Author: Koen De Maertelaere

Reading time 5 min.

The standard does not allow this…

The standard says ….

You have to comply to the standard….

How often have you heard these sentences? I hear them on a daily basis.


Recently I read a document published in 2014 which titles: Children’s play space and safety management, rethinking the role of play equipment standards. This document was written by Bernard Spiegal, Tim R. Gill, Harry Harbottle and David J. Ball. (*)

At first it is difficult to understand in which way the authors are looking at the playground standards. But after some more reading it all makes sense. Although they make a lot of valuable points I cannot totally agree with their document. It is strikingly odd that still at this moment in time people are blaming the standards to be the direct cause of the lack of challenging/risky play. Very often the argument used in our world of play is that the standards are the limiting factor in function of challenging or risky play.

First some facts about standards:

  • Standards are there to facilitate barrier free trade between different countries or even different continents. (In that way standards do have an economic value.)
  • Standards cannot be design restrictive! (requirements must leave the possibility for alternative ways to achieve an equal safety level in another way)
  • Standards do not set minimum or maximum requirements. As such standards do not provide 100% certainty in relation to safety. (When you fulfill all the requirements of the standard you still end up with only a presumption of safety. The intention of the standard is not to provide 100% safety, this is not possible without removing the main purpose to the products for children’s fun and development. Even calling it a ‘safety’ standard can lead to the wrong impression. The purpose of standards is trying to find a reasonable balance safety vs: challenge, fun etc)
  • Standards are not mandatory. (standards are not laws! They are technical documents)

The standards for playground equipment are the result of the harmonization of different national standards from European countries. It has been a tradeoff between the different parties around the table to achieve one standard for the whole of Europe. And the primary purpose was trade! By having one version of standards it enables producers and traders of products to access the market on an equal footing. And that is the economic value of the standards.

One of the consequences is that producers or traders hire certification institutes in order to certify their products to the applicable standard. In that way they can prove the “conformity” of their product. By this move to standardization of products the negative consequence is that less and less original non-conforming playground equipment provides challenging and risky play. This could be a positive, as well as a negative, of course! Working within the ‘principles’ of the Standard it still possible to design products with great imagination, flexibility and including risks.

If we take into account that standards cannot be design restrictive in combination with the fact that they are not mandatory, it can only result in the conclusion that’s the standards alone are not the problem for the lack of risky play. There must be an underlying problem.As an inspector of playground equipment who specialized in natural – adventure playgrounds, I have witnessed the conduct of colleague inspectors in their day-to-day businesses. A majority of colleague inspectors see the standards as minimum requirements.

And this is really one of the problems. The majority of inspectors clamp onto the safety standards as if they were the holy Bible. The main reasons they are doing this is to limit their liability in case of an accident and also their lack of competence to understand the rationale of the standards. Liability of owners-operators is another problem. We have seen how the suing culture in the United States has made it almost impossible to deviate from the standard. And unfortunately the same suing culture has found its way into Europe. In a lot of cases parents no longer feel responsible for the actions of their children. So, when an accident happens they start looking for who to blame.

In my personal opinion the fear for liability is the real reason for the lack of challenging or risky play.

The first step we need to take is stop calling the standards “safety standards”! We are misleading our audience with the term safety.

Step two is that public expectations must be changed to except accidents will sometimes happen, this is to be expected and does not mean something is wrong. Of the more provided the greater the chance of an accident.

Step three is that operators, producers and traders must be willing to provide equipment, with higher levels of risk. This will happen automatically if the market forces are set correctly, as in step two.

Step four has to be taken by the owner–operators and inspectors involved in the follow up of the safety level of the installed equipment. They have to overcome the fear for liability and start embracing and promoting acceptable risk. Again, this should happen automatically if step two is achieved

When all of us are willing to take acceptable risk as the basis in our “safety vision” we use, we can make huge steps forward. The day we will no longer talk about dangers/risks but opportunities is the day that children will be empowered to learn even more life skills.



* Children's play space and safety management, rethinking the role of play equipment standards by Bernard Spiegal, Tim R. Gill, Harry Harbottle and David J. Ball is available at