Feature Article - July 2007
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Special Supplement: Complete Guide to Sports & Recreation Surfaces

By Dana Carman


When it comes to playgrounds, safety is the number one issue. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC) "Handbook for Public Playground Safety," more than 200,000 kids are treated each year for injuries associated with playground equipment with most of those injuries occurring when children fall from the equipment onto the ground.

To address the issue of falls, the CPSC created guidelines specifying shock absorbency, height restrictions and surfacing materials. It's all detailed in the handbook, which is free and available online (www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/325.pdf).

To evaluate these critical components to safety, test methods provided by the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) as outlined in F1292-04 "Standard Specification for Impact Attenuation of Surfacing Materials within the Use Zone of Playground Equipment" are followed. Several states have passed legislation or regulations mandating certain playground safety regulations based on the CPSC guidelines and ASTM specifications. According to the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), those states are Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

Obviously, the ground cover or surface underneath the equipment on the playground is a big decision and not just because of all the guidelines and regulations surrounding safety. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) has also changed the playground surface as wheelchair access requires a firm and stable surface. In order to make your playground accessible to everyone, loose materials recommended by the CPSC, such as wood chips or sand, would be ruled out.

According to Bob Milhaus, owner of Playground Consulting and Design, that's because loose materials aren't a stable surface. At impact points, such as the bottom of a slide, loose fill will move out from under kids' feet, creating holes in your surface that are in need of replacing regularly. It also decomposes and compacts over time and hides trash and other materials you don't want your children coming in contact with, like animal excrement. Many playground surfaces today are poured-in-place polyurethane or rubber mats and tiles.

While there are several options for playground surfaces, Milhaus warns that each comes with its own set of pros and cons. For example, rubber tiles enable you to change out worn areas without having to replace the whole surface like a poured-in-place surface. On the other hand, a poured-in-place surface allows more flexibility in the design and has no seams that can come up. Poured-in-place surfaces can be customized to include school logos or other design elements, such as patterns or maps.

Another option increasing in popularity is synthetic turf installed over a rubber pad on the playgrounds. It is low maintenance and looks like real grass, making it visually appealing.

But before you decide, Milhaus recommends visiting various playgrounds and talking to the people who are currently living with the surfaces you may be interested in installing.

"You can't pick stuff out of a catalog," he said. "You have to get out there and see it, find out how dangerous it might be and see what the kids are doing with it beyond its intended use."

As Milhaus points out, kids are, after all, kids.

A Very Special Playground

With 18 acres of land in Fairfax County, Va., Adele Lebowitz could have easily made a small fortune by selling it, but instead she chose to donate the land to the Fairfax County Park Authority, and Clemyjontri Park was born. Clemyjontri is named for Lebowitz's four children Carolyn (Cl), Emily (emy), John (jon) and Patrina (tri).

With such kindness behind the park, it's inherently a special place, but one of the conditions Lebowitz placed on the park was that a playground be built for children with disabilities. (She also requested that a carousel be a part of the playground.) And so this playground is designed for all children to have a place to play and incorporates many unique elements.

Designing around the carousel proved challenging as the amount of clearance around it, which is specified by the manufacturer, had to be adjusted to make it fully accessible. The playground surface is a poured-in-place rubber and covers 1.4 acres, which according to the surfacing company, is the largest poured-in-place playground it has ever done.

Several outdoor "rooms" can be found on the playground. There's the Rainbow Room, which integrates color, pictures, sign, Braille and language. The Schoolhouse and Maze has educational learning games and panels that form a maze. The Movin' and Groovin' Transportation Area features a race track. "Recently we had kids out there having wheelchair races and just having fun," said Judy Pedersen, public information officer for the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Fitness and Fun area features the largest piece of play equipment and jungle gym components, which have been modified for accessibility.

"There are things to stimulate all kids," Pedersen said. "There may be kids without sight or who have autism and so there is a range of experiences for kids with differing disabilities. It's also an attractive and fun playground for kids without disabilities. It's a playground for all kids."

Kirk Holley, special projects manager, joked that the use of bright colors on the playground may be a matter of national security. "The site is very close to the CIA, and we're pretty confident that we've caused the CIA a problem," he said. "You can pick up our color surface from satellite imagery. It's pretty bright."

More information on Clemyjontri Park can be found on its Web site at www.clemypark.com.