Supplement Feature - September 2008
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Playing It Safe

A Closer Look at Playground Surfaces

By Hayli Morrison


The obvious problem with loose fill surfaces is the surface shifting, particularly in high-traffic areas. It requires careful monitoring and maintenance, but as long as you're vigilant, Wolfson of the CPSC said these surfaces are acceptable.

"Displacement has always been an issue of concern, but it has not led us to shy away from shredded rubber and wood chips," Wolfson said, adding that the CPSC recommends playground surfacing be at least nine inches deep. With vigilance from playground managers and the general public, Wolfson said there are no real safety concerns with loose-fill surfacing, the adequacy of which has been proven over time.

"We feel like there's good performance with the gravel, the shredded mulch and wood chips, but it does place a higher responsibility on the playground manager," he said. "There needs to be a higher level of constant maintenance. We do tend to see more displacement in high-traffic areas, where there are high levels of climbing or jumping, like slides or the second level of multi-tier playground sets. Parents can help, too, by just sort of shifting that surfacing back into place."

The CPSC issues guidelines for safe playground design and maintenance in a manual that can be downloaded from its Web site at The organization revised its guidelines manual in Spring 2007 to more specifically reflect safety recommendations on equipment heights and surfacing depths for different age groups. While respected across the industry as the authority on playground safety, the CPSC's guidelines are not mandatory standards. Essentially, it is to be determined by each individual governing body whether playground design will comply with the CPSC's recommendations.

"In the majority of cases, we are seeing very good compliance," Wolfson said, adding that most safety problems are with backyard playgrounds built by homeowners. The goal of the CPSC, he said, is not to be alarmists or whistleblowers, but to simply create the safest play environment possible for children.

"We want to see head trauma that could cause severe injury of a child reduced down to a bruising of the head. We want to see the broken arm that could result from an 8-foot fall reduced down to a bruising of the arm," he said. "Shock-absorbing material has the ability to minimize the need for hospitalization of a child."

It can certainly be a daunting task to stay in step with the latest developments in playground safety and find the necessary budget to fund it. However, in the end, it is a very worthy goal, one that keeps playground managers like Hatcher enthusiastic about the job.

"It's hard to get it all together, but the most rewarding thing is when you hear a child giggle and scream with laughter," Hatcher said. "That makes it all worthwhile."