Feature Article - September 2003
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Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

Playground design trends mix excitement with accessibility and safety

By Kelli Anderson

Thinking outside the sandbox

Universally accessible playgrounds are often veritable wonderlands with play features that challenge children at all levels and with all abilities. Thinking outside the typical slides, swings and catwalk structures, designers and manufactures have raised the creative bar for what a playground can be.

For example, in understanding the benefits of centripetal force for children with sensory integration needs like Aspergers Syndrome or Autism, there is now a spinning playground component designed especially with these children in mind. Another component, a rocking-motion swayer, is designed to allow children with and without wheelchairs to activate it together. Helping to better address accessibility needs—and getting economic benefits in the bargain—there are also ground-level structures including play elements like half-panels with ample footrest clearance for wheelchairs.

Manufacturers are listening more and more to the wisdom of such consulting and design groups like Boundless Playgrounds, Shane's Inspiration and Hadley's Park Inc., whose passion, research and experience with special needs children have given them unique insights into the complex world of designing fun for everyone.

Surface Tension

"What's wrong with that picture?" recently asks one parent, gesturing toward a colorful play structure at her neighborhood school playground. "There's a ramp, there's fun stuff to do—but look at the surface. How's the child in a wheelchair supposed to get there?"

No matter how great your play elements, no matter how well designed and accessible and integrated your structure design, without the right surfacing children or their caregivers with disabilities can still end up watching from the sidelines. Not only that, but poor installation and poor maintenance of surfacing materials in playgrounds is downright hazardous.

"Forty percent of all accidents are caused by poor maintenance at playgrounds," says Steve King, co-founder and chairman of a playground manufacturer. "Number one by far is maintenance of surfacing."

Views differ according to preference and philosophy of playground design. Shane's Inspiration, for example, uses poured-in-place surfacing exclusively to allow children with disabilities to go anywhere their able-bodied peers are going. Others will tell you a mix of surfaces according to need is fine, such as accessible pathways being notably near accessible features and transfer points. And still others will tell you that wood fiber at the proper depths is the best surfacing—at least for fall-height areas. When money is the main deciding factor, however, it pays to take life cost and the maintenance quotient into account. Organic surfacing materials may ultimately cost more in the long run due to never-ending replacement costs resulting from decay and kick-out.

In general terms, here are some of the most common surfacing materials in order of initial cost, from low to high:

  Wood chips, pea gravel, sand—do not meet ADA guidelines for accessibility, require periodic refilling especially under kick-out zones like swings and slides. A definite playground no-no by today's inclusive standards.

  Engineered wood fiber—as the most widely used product at 70 percent to 75 percent of the market, wood fiber is also ADA-approved, albeit not the easiest to traverse by wheelchair, but is excellent in fall-height areas for lessening impact-related injuries.

  Recycled rubber nuggets—rubber tire chip fill that's eco-friendly. They can be installed in kick-out zones in two layers where loose nuggets are poured over a lower grid to eliminate kick-out wear.

  Rubber tiles—rubber material with interlocking tiles that come in a number of thicknesses for fall-height safety. They come in many colors, manufactured by several companies and little to no maintenance required. Often has a higher initial cost.

  Poured-in-place—a rubber-based liquid mixed on site and poured into forms that can create colorful designs and visual interest. Probably the most ADA-friendly regarding accessibility. Initial high cost for product and installation but virtually maintenance-free.