Feature Article - January 2006
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Play to Live, Live to Play

Playground development, from design to construction and beyond

By Kyle Ryan


Surfacing dramatically affects both safety and accessibility. Without the right surfacing, hard falls are harder, and people with limited mobility get relegated to the sidelines. Riggs estimates that more than 70 percent of all playground injuries come from falls to the ground, which is supported by statistics from the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), a playground watchdog group based at the University of Northern Iowa. According to the NPPS, falls to the surface were a contributing factor in 79 percent of all injuries.

Playground surfacing essentially falls into two categories: loose-fill material (pea gravel, sand, mulch) and unitary (a foundation covered by poured-in-place synthetics or rubberized square tiles). Generally speaking, the cheaper the surface, the less effective it is when it comes to safety.

According to Riggs, neither gravel nor sand can have verifiable attenuation testing, which measures a surface's effectiveness against falls from various heights. The ASTM has numerous reports about various playground surfaces, such as F1287, which addresses engineered wood fibers. Wood mulch isn't an engineered fiber, but it's cheap and can have verifiable attenuation testing. But it also decays and needs to be frequently replaced. Some companies offer rubberized mulch, which offers the same benefits as wood mulch but doesn't decay or have as many hygienic issues. (Wood fibers attract bacteria, and animals sometimes use them for toilets.)

Alta Plaza Park's new playground will feature a mix of sand and rubberized surfacing made from recycled tires. The original plan called for a much greater use of sand until planners realized sand and recycled surfacing didn't mix well together. Other city parks that used both encountered problems from the sand migrating onto the rubberized material, which breaks down more rapidly because of it.

"We decided literally in the last two weeks that we're actually only going to keep one sand feature in the playground," Matioli says. "We're only going to keep one on the preschool-age kids' side."

All newly constructed playgrounds have some kind of special surfacing near equipment with fall hazards, and synthetics, either from tiles or poured-in, seamless surfaces, have become more prevalent despite their higher price. But they may prove cheaper in the long run.

"[Wood mulch] is going to be compacted, and you'll have to replenish it probably every two years," Riggs says. "But if you put in the concrete, and you put in the fall zone, let's say seamless or poured-in-place or tiles, you're going to have the economics show that longevity is going to be much better than the wood mulch."

They may prove beneficial in other ways, too; the Friends of Alta Plaza park received a grant from the state of California for using recycled tires in its surfacing.


The ADA opened up most public places to the disabled, but it also opened up a can of worms for people who design those public places. For example, playground equipment itself may be accessible to the disabled, but the playground environment may be inaccessible.

"When somebody says 'My playground equipment meets ADA,' it's true, but it's not true," Riggs says. "It doesn't do any good if you get out of your car in a wheelchair [and] you can't get to the playground, right?…A lot of people don't realize that they're spending a ton of money on playground equipment that's not accessible."

He breaks it down like this: The first obstacle is getting to the playground itself. If there's a sidewalk, a person in a wheelchair can use that. But what if there's a containment border, like a fence or a small barrier to keep rubberized mulch in place? Even if the wheelchair-bound person can get passed the containment border, can he move on the playground's surfacing? If so, once he reaches the playground equipment, is there enough at ground level that he can play on?

"You have a design rule that says 'If I've got x number of play events up on the equipment, I have to have some y number of playground equipment functions at the ground level,'" Riggs says.

He likens it to buying a house. Think of the kitchen alone: There's more to designing a kitchen than simply figuring out where the cabinets will go in relation to the sink.

"It's all connected," he says.

The old playgrounds at Chaires Elementary predated the ADA, so the school used district funds to make the playgrounds friendlier to the disabled.

"By assuring that 25 percent of the structure includes accessible features, we were able to expand our playgrounds a great deal," Moss says.