Feature Article - January 2007
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Safe Ground

Building, maintaining and inspecting playgrounds to ensure all kids can play, safely

By Emily Tipping

Falling down - safely

Many of us remember swinging and sliding on the playground when we were kids, and the surface under out feet was dirt, grass or even asphalt, as it was at my elementary school. But these days, we know a lot more about what's safe underfoot and what's not.

According to "Playing It Safe: The Sixth Nationwide Safety Survey of Public Playgrounds," 75 percent of more than 1,000 playgrounds surveyed in 2002 did not have adequate protective surfacing. This report, put together by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the State Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), shows a 5 percent improvement over 2000, when 80 percent of playgrounds lacked protective surfacing. That said, we still have a long way to go.

According to the CPSC, most of the injuries sustained on playgrounds are the result of falls, primarily falls to the ground beneath the equipment.

Long gone are the days when asphalt, dirt—even grass—were considered OK for kids to play over. The CFA, along with many other safety-conscious organizations, claims that hard surfaces like these are inappropriate because of their lack of shock absorption. The NPPS reports that falls from just 1 foot onto concrete could cause a concussion, and a fall from 8 feet onto dirt is the same as running into a brick wall at 30 miles per hour.

"Very importantly, you need to have a surface on which a child can fall and not be injured, and we call that the critical fall height of the product," Wallach said.

So what kinds of surfacing are acceptable?

Appropriate fall surfacing can be divided into two broad categories: loose-fill surfacing like wood chips, shredded bark mulch, pea gravel and rubber mulch, and synthetic surfaces like rubber tiles, mats and poured-in-place surfaces.

No matter which type of surface you use, you will have to perform some sort of routine maintenance.

If you use loose-fill surfacing, you should ask the manufacturer about the appropriate depth for the type you've purchased. Then you should maintain that depth religiously. Generally speaking, for loose-fill surfacing you need to maintain a minimum depth of at least 12 inches around each playground component in a 6-foot fall zone. On the NPPS report card, providing the appropriate depth of loose fill was another area that received an F.

Be aware that when wet or compacted, these surfaces may not provide as much protection. You'll need to get in there and rake or till the fill from time to time, as well, to ensure it's not getting packed down, especially in the higher-traffic areas like the bottoms of slides and underneath swings.

Synthetic surfaces require less maintenance, but you'll still need to inspect the surface regularly. Make sure there are no drainage problems, and also check for damage like burns or gouges. Sometimes loose materials can end up on your synthetic surface (especially if you've combined loose-fill and synthetics on your playground), creating a slipping or tripping hazard.

Not allowed

Some equipment is just never safe.

According to a report from the Consumer Federation of America, 29 percent of more than 1,000 playgrounds surveyed contained one or more pieces of this too-dangerous equipment:

  • Chain or cable walks
  • Animal swings
  • Individual climbing ropes
  • Swinging exercise rings
  • Trampolines