Supplement Feature - September 2008
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Playing It Safe

A Closer Look at Playground Surfaces

By Hayli Morrison

Such surfaces are also less accessible for disabled patrons. However, a solution to that problem is in the development phase now, at least when it comes to wood chips.

"Wood chips can be difficult to get compacted. It's going to be hard to run a wheelchair or walker through," said Barbara Hatcher, certified grounds technician for the Parks and Recreation Department in Amarillo, Texas. "There are studies under way now to see if they can get some sort of binder in there with it to make it ADA-accessible."

Amarillo currently uses wood chips in some of its city playgrounds, and shredded recycled rubber in others. Both have their advantages, according to Hatcher. Shredded rubber provides a softer landing pad than wood chips in the event of a fall. However, shredded rubber is also harder on lawn maintenance equipment, should it escape the playground's border.

"The kids will throw the materials out, and the rubber tires will have to be raked up, but the wood chips will break down easier," Hatcher said.

Another surface material cropping up on playgrounds more frequently is synthetic turf, which also integrates a certain amount of recycled rubber.

A staple on sports fields for the past decade, artificial grass has appealed to playground designers more over the past five years or so because of its durability and natural appearance.

"Typical concerns like heavy foot traffic, rain—all of that goes away with synthetic turf, so a lot of municipalities and parks services are working toward making that happen," said Josh Thayer, managing partner of a Texas-based artificial turf installation company with roughly 80 percent of its customer focus on playground surfacing and lawn replacement.

The CPSC has historically warned against artificial turf on playgrounds, citing concerns over the surface's long-term shock absorption ability.

"The CPSC does not advocate the use of synthetic turf as a surface for playgrounds," said Scott Wolfson, the CPSC's deputy director for public affairs. "The goal is to have a surface with a non-compression depth of at least nine inches, and I don't believe you're going to achieve that with most of these surfaces."

However, those concerns may become less merited as time goes on. Innovative companies offer an underlayer of finely crushed stone and other supplemental padding to achieve fall heights of up to 11 feet, according to one company's Web site.

With its close attention to the fall-height aspect, artificial turf is now considered by some to be every bit as viable a playground surfacing option as the alternatives. And it provides the added bonuses of very little maintenance and big points in the categories of design appeal and eco-friendliness. With no watering required, it does not tax the earth's natural resources, and with its chemical-free existence, it also poses very little threat to the environment.