Recess times need to be extended and kids should be playing outside as soon as they get home from school. Picture: Jennifer Bruce

London - A “cotton wool culture” has eroded children’s freedom to play outdoors, health and safety watchdogs admitted recently.

They say a blizzard of regulations is being used as an excuse to deny children scope for fun.

The statement, by the Play Safety Forum and the Health and Safety Executive, was condemned as ironic, as HSE rules and regulations are blamed by many for creating the culture in the first place.

But critics said they hoped it marked a turning point and the start of a more commonsense approach to what constitutes danger. Warning that play had become “sterile”, they insisted children must be allowed to learn about risk.

The HSE said health and safety laws were being ‘wrongly cited as a reason to deny children play opportunities.

The statement cited “shocking” ICM research that half of children aged seven to 12 are not allowed to climb a tree without an adult present and that one in five children in the same age group have been banned from playing conkers.

It said children should be exposed to a degree of risk to help prepare them for the “realities” of daily life, where “risk is ever-present”. Councils, schools, charities and other providers should use “sensible adult judgments” instead of allowing misplaced fears of prosecution to rid play spaces of fun and challenge.

“When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits,” it says.

“No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool.” The approach accepts that the possibility of “serious or life-threatening injuries cannot be eliminated” – only managed.

While some risks are unacceptable, such as poor maintenance of equipment, a degree of controlled risk allows children to “reap the benefits of play”. It is wrong to believe that “mistakes and accidents will not happen”.

The HSE’s admission follows numerous examples over the years of the absurd lengths officials have gone to to avoid litigation. They include bans on conker games in case they cause nut allergies or requiring children to wear protective goggles while playing.

Over-zealous safety clampdowns have seen climbing frames, see-saws, swings, roundabouts and slides ripped out of playgrounds.

Officials have also been accused of scrapping equipment altogether when only minor modifications were needed. The welter of rules mean many childhoods are more sheltered than a generation ago. “Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion,” the statement says. “In the case of the most serious failures of duty, prosecution rightly remains a possibility, and cannot be entirely ruled out.

“However, this possibility does not mean play providers should eliminate even the most trivial of risks.

“Provided sensible and proportionate steps have been taken, it is highly unlikely there would be any breach of health and safety law involved, or that it would be in the public interest to bring a prosecution.”

Robin Sutcliffe of the Play Safety Forum, an umbrella group for organisations involved in children’s play, said: “This will be a landmark statement, helping councils, schools, charities and others to give children and young people greater freedom to experience challenging and adventurous play and leisure opportunities.

“The implications for society will be far reaching and my thanks go to the HSE for embracing this concept and working with PSF so positively.”

HSE chairman Judith Hackitt said: “Health and safety laws are often wrongly cited as a reason to deny children opportunities, contributing to a cotton wool culture.” - Daily Mail