"It's to do with litigation, isn't it?" said a colleague when I mentioned I was writing about playground design and risk.
If asked, I'm sure many of us would assume the same thing. But it turns out minimising exposure to legal action isn't a primary driver behind playground creation.
At least, not in Australia.
Of course, safety is a defining factor, but that's a different thing.
Here in Australia standards have been in place since 1981 to ensure the inevitable injuries that happen in a playground are not too severe, and certainly not fatal. Some of them are just common sense.
"You never put the swings in the middle of the playground", says Barb Champion, head of PlayAustralia, a non-profit organisation promoting safe and developmentally appropriate play experiences for children.
Ms Champion was involved in setting up the standards, and is a long-term advocate for the importance of outdoor play.
When asked about the inherent risks in current playground design, Ms Champion is quick to reply. "There really aren't any," she says.
So if the industry is not concerned about a bit of risk in the playground, who is? Well, we are.
While the head of PlayAustralia is actively trying to get Australians to worry less and engage with our kids more, why is it that we — parents, councils, childcare centres and schools — are still stuck in a risk-averse mindset, worried about the impact of injury (or litigation) rather than the now-known benefits of our kids taking risks?
The concept of 'risk' is part of everything we do, whether it's risk assessments we fill out at work, the way we approach creative pursuits, or strategies used on the football field.
You could argue it's a defining element of our culture, with modern societies understood as marching towards ever-greater fields of safety. Of course, this is all for good reason and we are now, generally speaking, safer than we have ever been.
The health impacts of risk avoidance
Increasingly, what the fields of early childhood development and paediatrics have been finding is that a systemic avoidance of risk — in playgrounds and other environments — has led to us now being less safe. In countries such as Australia, children's health has declined in the past few decades.
Clinical dietitian Michael Hann tells me that, yes, diet is the main contributing factor, but the crucial second factor is a dramatic drop in physically-strengthening exercise.
A 2008 UK study found the average number of sit-ups declined by 27 per cent and average arm strength had fallen 26 percent in children from the same study in 1998.
The obesity crisis is well documented and predicted to get worse. Ms Champion tells the story of a primary school in Northern Victoria that has recently changed the orientation of the lanes on its pool to run across the length and not along it, because most students don't have the upper body strength to swim the full length of a 25-metre pool. Such stories are clearly startling.
Good risk, bad risk and learning the difference
A key part of the problem may be how we view the relationship between safety and danger. In his 1988 book Searching for Safety, American political scientist Aaron Wildavsky revealed that: "For the most part, safety and danger coexist in the same objects and practices. Under the right (or wrong) conditions, everything we need for life can also maim or kill: water can drown, food can poison, air can choke."
Mary Jeavons is an Australian architect who has been designing playgrounds for 30 years. She is a member of both the International Play Association and the Australian Standard Committee on Playground Safety.
Good playgrounds, she says, provide challenges and do not overly predetermine choices for children, combining "risks with choice: how high to climb; how to move your body".
She says it's important to provide situations where children learn to recognise what risk is, rather than have it taken away. "Otherwise, how much skill have we taught them?"
In other words, some elements need to be 'dangerous' in order for a child to develop the skills to recognise the danger involved. If they don't, they will be more likely to encounter graver danger at a later stage.
Ms Jeavons' firm helped design the playground surrounding the meerkat enclosure at the Melbourne Zoo. The much-celebrated tunnel system, with its uneven surfaces and hard rock-like finishes, apparently does not strictly follow industry standards, but "the client [Melbourne Zoo] understood that a torn shirt or cut or scrape was not a great issue, so thankfully they supported the project".
What about monkey bars?
In late 2018 David Eager, professor of risk management at the University of Technology Sydney, called for an end to the use of monkey bars in playgrounds and schools. He cited the high rate of injuries suggesting that monkey bars should be replaced with the now-ubiquitous "space nets".
In response, Ms Jeavons prepared a presentation for a Parks and Leisure Association Vic/Tas state conference advocating on behalf of the embattled equipment, citing that space nets are not an adequate replacement as they don't present the same physical challenges.
According to Ms Jeavons, the issue is not necessarily monkey bars themselves, but how few there are in any given play space (they are naturally popular, which leads to overcrowding, which leads to falls and injuries), and that they are often not provided at graded heights, for different ages and skill levels.
To reveal the extent of the problem, Ms Jeavons cites the 2018 Active Healthy Kids Australia Report Card which found that "as in 2014 and 2016, Australia has again been assigned a failing grade (D) for Overall Physical Activity Levels".
Additionally: "The theme of this year's Report Card highlights the seemingly forgotten component of our national physical activity guidelines — that children should engage in muscle and bone strengthening activities on at least three days per week."
Monkey bars, for all their problems, are able to provide this strength
I feel the reliance on the term "risk" adds to the issue, as the word itself is negatively-geared.
In order to promote the positive side of "risk", the term requires continuous reimagining, or rebranding, which is inevitably a lost battle.
But in an attempt to try, within the playground design industry the term "risk benefit" is increasingly being used. Perhaps the answer is to leave 'risk' to one side and instead consider our environment as a set of challenges; challenges that teach us physical skills and resilience. As the research reveals, we have been actively denying our children these challenges for some time.
Playground designers are already up for the task. Now, perhaps it's up to us to let our kids play with a bit more abandon, and be willing to encourage them to test themselves, even if it means failing and falling.