Swings and roundabouts - how safe are children's garden playthings?

Josie Barnard reports on a campaign for better standards over the installation of outdoor equipment
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The Independent Online
Growing concerns about the potential danger of children's swings and slides in the garden could have a knock-on effect on the value of a property. If you install children's play equipment using concrete foundations and meeting national safety standards, as opposed to just plonking it all on the grass, you will almost certainly increase the value of your children's leisure time. You may also increase the saleability of your home. And you will be supporting the crusade of people including Peter Heseltine and Michelle Hooper.

"Pubs and playgrounds have to meet either the BS5696 British safety standard or the DIN7926 German safety standard," says Peter Heseltine of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA), "but when it comes to domestic installations all parents can look to is the current toy standard BS5665. It is being updated, but frankly it's piffling as far as outdoor equipment is concerned."

Is the government unconcerned because domestic swings and slides are generally safe? Peter Heseltine says that this is not the case. "The standards of equipment produced varies wildly from acceptable to dangerous." In the absence of legal requirements, he is currently working with the Child Accident Prevention Trust to put together guidelines. But what should parents do in the meantime?

Michelle Hooper is the Environmental Health Officer for East Dorset District Council. She is pioneering workshops for childminders and parents. As well as looking around and checking that you are not installing your swing bang in front of an oak, think about the age range of children who will be using the equipment, she advises. Will toddlers be running into danger? She suggests drawing up a list of questions. For example, if the item is steel, is it galvanised (ie strong and weather resistant)? Does the "Critical Fall Height" meet the British Standards' requirement for the particular age of your child? The manufacturer's answers will help you assess their competence and trustworthiness.

Alternatively, you can get hold of the BS5696 or DIN7926 safety standards from your local library and adapt them for home use. They will tell you how to calculate safe distances for swings and climbing frames from static objects. You can also phone ROSPA for advice.

ROSPA statistics show that 30 per cent of playground accidents result from site design and a further 30 per cent from equipment design. If you design your own play area and choose your own equipment you could drastically reduce the risk of accidents for your children.

But what happens when you want to sell your house? A safe play area might increase saleability, but only to a certain type of buyer. Ian Davis, regional director for the Black Horse Agency, says that even if official safety standards are met, their agency would be extremely unlikely to mention a play area in the property's specifications. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" he says. "One buyer might pay a premium for a play area. Another might look for a discount to cover the cost of dismantling it."

This, though, need not be expensive. Chris Vallender of TP Activity Toys explains. "The frames of our equipment aren't secured in the concrete, just the stakes, so when you decide to move on you simply leave the stakes where they are, remove the frame, grass over the concrete and your lawn's as good as new." He says that although the idea of proper foundations is off-putting and it is a "bit of a bore" to put them in, it is not a difficult operation "especially now you can buy ready-mixed concrete from DIY stores and borrow tools on a day-hire basis".

As for Black Horse's Ian Davis, did he install his four kids' climbing frame properly? Yes, he did indeed roll up his shirt sleeves and get out a bag of concrete. "When it comes to climbing frames and swings, parents think of the value of their children's development and play activity."

ROSPR 0121 248 2000; National Playing Fields Association 0171-584 6445; TP Activitly Toys are at branches of John Lewis, or you can phone them direct on 01299 827 028