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Supplement Feature - September 2011

Safe at Home

Finding Safe Surfaces for Playgrounds

By Rick Dandes


Selecting the most appropriate and safest playground surface material is crucial in preventing children from seriously harming themselves while at play. After all, statistics indicate that about 70 percent of all playground injuries are the result of falls to the surface.

Independent users and safety experts say that no one surface can be called the unqualified best. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages; most have to do with maintenance (loose fill constantly needs to be raked back into high-wear areas), cost (loose fill is cheaper, but what is total cost of ownership in the long term), safety (various disagreements about what's actually safest) and accessibility.

In choosing appropriate protective surfaces, several park officials said you should take a look at the long-term issues involved and not make decisions based on today's costs alone. Such factors as weather, amount of wear, the availability of maintenance staff, and budgets most often play a role in that decision. And, when considering which surface is best for your situation, also investigate the surface's resiliency, wheelchair accessibility, heat absorbency, and even reaction to frost, especially in the North.

"Original costs also have to be weighed against the life-cycle maintenance costs of the different surface materials available," suggested Paul Kline, grounds crew chief, Harford county public schools, in Maryland.

"What is the surface's resiliency? Is the surface wheelchair accessible? Is it ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant? There is a lot to consider," he added.

Indeed, there is. Betsy Vander Weerdt, student online coordinator, National Program for Playground Safety at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, said that her organization has identified three different categories for fall surfacing: organic loose fill, which is woodchips, mulch and engineered wood fibers; inorganic loose fill, such as sand, fine sand and gravel; and unitary systems like poured-in-place rubber, rubber mats and tiles, and artificial turf.

Most recreation officials prefer surfacing that is designed to combine high levels of safety with minimal maintenance requirements.

"Loose-fill surfaces are the most economical, easiest to install and most widely available," said Matt Byrd, parks supervisor, Kettering, Ohio. "Drawbacks are they require constant maintenance to deal with kick-out under slides and swings, because the level of protection changes as the material is moved around. Loose-fill surfaces are also not as easily accessible as a soft surface, and they don't look as nice."

Engineered wood fiber (or EWF) differs from ordinary wood chips in that the wood is mechanically shredded in such a way as to cause the material to thatch together. This thatched material makes for a more reliable and consistent surface, and resists movement within the play area more than chips. Another inevitable consideration with wood products is the annual replenishment of a material that naturally biodegrades each year.

Jesse Jones, the project manager for the four schools at Quantico Marine Base, in Quantico, Va., agreed with Matt Byrd's assessment of loose-fill surfaces. "No question," Jones said, "Loose fill certainly has a lower initial cost when compared to other surfaces, but there are long-term costs involved. Loose fill constantly needs to be raked back into high-wear areas. And, in the long term, when I've used loose fill, I've had to replace the mulch, two, sometimes three times a year because of the moisture in our region. The mulch can get moldy."