A Safe Space
Playground Safety Basics & Beyond
In the 1970s, a trip to the playground would likely bring hours of fun on a few of the old classics: the wooden seesaw, metal slide and jungle gym. Climbing the monkey bars and hanging upside-down was a popular activity, but there was a risk of tumbling onto the rock-hard concrete below, a type of surface you no longer see under playground equipment.
Certainly, concerns about safety have changed the landscape of playgrounds over the years, and have prompted the replacement of play elements from the past with the more common plastic play structures we see today, as well as safer surfacing underneath—resulting in fewer injuries.
What Playground Owners Should Know
For children who want to spend hours at the playground, safety is of the utmost importance, which is why playground owners and operators should keep in mind some important factors before installing playgrounds, experts say.
"Play and playground safety continue to remain top of mind for parents, and there are a variety of aspects owner-operators should consider before installation," said Tom Norquist, immediate past president, International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), Harrisburg, Pa.
For example, the various types of playground surfaces, including poured-in-place (PIP) rubber, rubber tiles, engineered wood fiber, loose fill rubber and synthetic turf systems, need to be considered. "Each option comes with its own set of benefits and considerations, so take time to research the surface that best suits your play environment needs," Norquist said.
He added that it's also important to ensure that plans for public playgrounds meet or exceed the minimum ADA requirements as outlined in the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. "IPEMA member companies are well versed in ADA compliance for both the equipment and the surfacing requirements. Keep in mind that the accessible routes to the equipment from parking lots or sidewalks are one of the most common non-compliance issues," he said. "Careful planning of unobstructed accessible routes with less than 5% slope and less than 2% cross-slope will ensure that everyone can get to the play area.
"Finally," he added, "always look for IPEMA-certified equipment. In the interest of public playground safety, IPEMA is committed to ensuring that suppliers and manufacturers meet the play industry's current and applicable AS™ and CSA standards for safety. Starting your project with the right equipment and surfacing products is an important step toward providing an exciting, yet safer playground."
Randy Watermiller, vice president of product development for a Delano, Minn.-based company that manufactures commercial playground equipment, said that in order to install playgrounds safely, owners and operators need to "be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions and specifications and use [the] manufacturer's certified installers whenever possible."
In addition, "owners/operators should make sure to check for and follow any state and local requirements that may be needed for the given project. When possible, use a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) to perform an audit after installation to verify compliance," he said.
Playground surfacing also needs to be taken into consideration. "Realistically, the surfacing you choose is one of the most important choices you will make in the process, because your ability to decrease the risk and liability of serious injuries related to falls depends on the kind of safety surface material you choose," said Darren Toomey, CEO of a full-service safety surfacing company in Driftwood, Texas.
The factors that need to be considered when determining the best playground safety surface include everything from the "playground equipment you choose to your budget, maintenance capabilities and the location of the playground. Today's surfacing options are plentiful," he said.
In terms of what playground owners and operators should keep in mind when choosing the most appropriate surface, Toomey noted that while loose-fill surfaces can be displaced and require more maintenance, they are less expensive. "So, if the playground is for a school, the concern about loose fill would be that student[s] would throw it at each other and track it into the school," he said. "If the playground is in an urban park, the concern would be dangerous hidden objects such as broken glass and hypodermic needles or even animal excrement."
All About Surfacing
The most common surfaces for playgrounds are grouped into two categories: unitary and loose fill. Common loose-fill surfaces consist of engineered wood fiber, rubber mulch, pea gravel and sand, while unitary types include poured-in-place rubber, bonded rubber, synthetic turf and rubber tiles.
"There are many options available to playground owners when it comes to selecting safety surfacing. With a multitude of 'must haves' such as safety, accessibility, cost, aesthetics, drainage, environmental impact and many others, it becomes difficult to find one surfacing type that meets everyone's needs," said Scott Merchlinski, CPSI, sales and marketing manager for a manufacturer of landscape and recreation surfaces in Middletown, Pa.
Therefore, "Owners should be engaged and do their research into the different types of surfacing that is available to them. Different surfaces wear differently over time, all require different amounts of maintenance, and age of surface is known to alter safety ratings over time," he said. "While surfacing does not elicit the same excitement, many times, as deciding which play pieces to use, choosing the correct surface will increase the safety, usability and overall enjoyment of the playground.
"With safety and accessibility in mind, we recommend 'overbuilding' the surfacing. Do not accept just 'passing,' or just 'meets,' safety requirements," Merchlinski said. "Exceeding safety requirements improves fall safety, reduces injuries and extends the functional longevity of the surface. As surfaces age, they tend to have reductions in fall safety and require additional maintenance. The more you preplan this in the beginning, the longer the surface will last while continuing to provide the necessary safety requirements."
When choosing the most appropriate surface, "Always work with a reputable and certified manufacturer," he added. "Validate that certifications are current. Ask for them! Request samples of the products. If you have questions, call the manufacturer and ask. Not all surfaces are appropriate for all uses."
Merchlinski also suggested engaging "as many different user groups as possible in your planning stage. This will make sure that the surface you choose works best for your playground. Beyond safety, and accessibility, make sure environmental impacts are discussed such as sun, shade, drainage and freezing. Every surface will produce different results."
Upfront budget, costs and expectations for ongoing maintenance, environmental conditions, as well as how the surfacing works with the overall site design are the different factors that go into selecting the best playground safety surfacing. "We recommend discussing the various options with our local playground consultants to determine what is most suitable for the project," Watermiller said.
And, while a variety of surfacing products exist on the market today, Norquist said "IPEMA recommends selecting from IPEMA-certified playground surfaces that, when installed and maintained properly, provide fall attenuation to meet the equipment fall height criteria and meet ADA requirements.
"These recommended play surfaces include engineered wood fiber, poured-in-place (PIP) rubber, rubber mulch, interlocking tile or artificial turf. Each of these play surfaces come with their own set of benefits and considerations," Norquist said. "When making a decision about the type of surfacing for your playground, consider the installation process and ongoing maintenance needs, as these can differ depending on the product."
For example, loose fill is less expensive, and it's easily sourced and installed, but it requires "constant maintenance and replenishment, which can be quite costly over time," Toomey said, adding that most loose-fill surfaces need to be at a depth of at least 10 inches to achieve proper impact attenuation.
Meanwhile, unitary surfacing has a higher upfront cost, but it has a lower maintenance cost over the life of the playground. "If you're on a tight budget, bonded rubber mulch is the least expensive unitary option," Toomey said. "It is a one-layered system, made from shredded recycled rubber which is bonded together with polyurethane binder.
"Rubber tiles are another option. One of the benefits to rubber tiles is that each tile is made in a factory by machines, so human error and environmental challenges are eliminated for the tiles themselves," he said. "However, because they are manufactured in a plant, they come in pieces that have a predetermined thickness, making it difficult to change the surface thickness throughout a playground under equipment requiring different fall heights. This can cause playground owners to overspend on thicker tiles than they need in some areas, unnecessarily increasing cost due to the additional materials."
Another unitary option is poured-in-place (PIP), which is a two-layer system that is mixed and installed onsite over a stable surface, such as concrete, asphalt or highly compacted stone.
"The first layer is made from recycled rubber mesh, or in some cases, crumb rubber, and the top layer is manmade colored granules that can be combined to make designs or a speckled effect. Both layers are mixed with moisture-curing polyurethane binder at different content percentages," Toomey explained. "The base layer varies in thickness corresponding to the different fall heights of the equipment. Since the surface is hand-troweled, there is margin for human error. And, since most playgrounds are outside, the weather plays a big part as well."
The last surface option is artificial turf with a recycled foam pad beneath for resiliency. "Artificial turf is a natural-looking option and is considered environmentally friendly because it eliminates the need for watering, fertilizers and other harmful chemicals," he said, adding that the downside is that it can get very hot. "For example, on a 98-degree day, the temperature on the turf could rise to more than 180 degrees. Turf also requires some maintenance to keep it looking good; however, it does provide consistent fall protection."
To keep playground surfaces well maintained, "Always follow the manufacturer's maintenance documents in order to maintain warranty and to maximize accessibility and safety," Merchlinski said.
"While we understand staff demands are high, we recommend that play areas are checked for maintenance issues no less than weekly. Early detection of surfacing issues is always best. This will reduce injuries, decrease repair costs, while also hopefully avoiding any downtime for the playground," he said.
"Beyond standard maintenance requirements, many surfaces will benefit from the use of 'playground mats' placed under swings, slide exits, spinners and any other high-use areas. As with any other surfacing, make sure that the mats are tested and certified for playground use," he said.
"Lastly, a working drainage system is probably the most overlooked component of most playground surfaces," Merchlinski added. "Drainage is vital to the performance of the surface when it comes to colder climates, rapid freeze/thaw cycles, and excessive rain in short periods of time. Check the drainage system periodically to make sure it is working properly."
For loose-fill surfaces, which are made up of small, loose components, Toomey suggested "raking it smooth as often as possible and refilling it to recommended depth." And, "For unitary surfaces, blowing debris such as leaves and branches off the surface helps the longevity. Power wash with a wide nozzle when necessary and one can even disinfect with a diluted chlorine solution."
COVID and Playgrounds
This past year, the word "safety" has taken on a whole new meaning in everyday life. Wearing masks, washing hands frequently and social distancing are the new safety standards to stay protected from COVID-19.
During the first wave of the pandemic in spring 2020, many playgrounds had to close temporarily. But when restrictions are lifted in communities, experts recommend some ways that playground owners and operators can help to keep their playgrounds safe.
"At IPEMA, playground safety is one of our top priorities. We collaborated with the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to develop … COVID-19 resources to help guide playground safety," Norquist said. "It's important to first follow all local and state regulations when it comes to public playground closures. If and when your playground is open, be sure to follow CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting."
For example, "Hang colorful signage to help remind parents and little ones to practice healthy habits while playing on the playground, including frequent handwashing, use of hand sanitizer and maintaining a safe distance from others," he said. "Develop protocols for the number of children who should be playing at a time and how many caregivers should be supervising. If possible, have plenty of staff on site to manage and monitor new processes and protocols that are in place."
The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) also has included some suggestions on its website, playgroundsafety.org, to help make the playground experience safer during the pandemic:
» Install and maintain signage with playground guidance for visitors.
» Clearly identify maintenance procedures for visitors.
» Sanitizer and sunscreen recommendations. (Where possible, the NPPS suggests the installation of sanitizer and sunscreen stations.)
» CDC guidance. (If you desire more supporting information, particularly regarding sanitation of playgrounds for COVID-19, the CDC has issued several documents that provide guidance for practices involving, in particular, sanitation of outdoor areas.)
Similarly, Watermiller suggested that playground owners and operators "Stay up-to-date and educated on the latest developments surrounding the pandemic at CDC.gov. Because there is so much information about the safe use of parks and playgrounds, we've curated some of the key resources released by our partners, including KABOOM!, NRPA and IPEMA. You can find these resources and more at playlsi.com/play-healthy."
To help make playgrounds even safer during COVID-19, several manufacturers are now offering antimicrobial coatings that add a barrier of protection to surfaces that children touch. RM