Guest Column - September 2008
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IPEMA: Navigating Playground Safety

By Tim Norquist


chool has begun, and that signals the official end to summer for all school-age children. Though some may think this would lead to a drop in community park and playground attendance, some playgrounds will actually increase in attendance due to shared programs with schools. Because of this, it's extremely important for playground owners to assess the fitness of their facilities and, if needed, perform maintenance and upgrades to the equipment and surfacing. Owners should make a habit of performing maintenance activities in the fall and spring to ensure consistency.

Often, it's the playground equipment that gets the initial attention. Sliding boards, swings, bridges and climbing walls can show obvious signs of wear and tear. These all need to be reviewed and repaired to make sure that the equipment is not damaged or dangerous. But the most common threat of noncompliance on playgrounds is right under our feet. Playground surfacing is also victim to weather and wear and tear, and all surfaces require maintenance to ensure safety. More than 80 percent of injuries on playgrounds occur from falls, and installation and proper maintenance of an IPEMA (International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association) certified, American with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant and shock-absorbent surface material can help minimize this risk of injury.

The Importance of Safe Surfacing

Kids today can have very different experiences on the playground than many of us did as children. When I went to school, we played on asphalt because conventional wisdom at the time was that it was softer than concrete. Surfaces such as asphalt, concrete and even grass have been eliminated on today's playgrounds. New, impact-attenuating surface materials on playgrounds are the result of extensive research to determine the best ways to prevent life-threatening injuries from falls while maintaining universal functionality.

In the mid to late 1960s, forward-thinking playground owners began installing uniform rubber mats and experimenting with "loose fill" surfacing. During this transition period, loose-fill surfaces such as sand, pea gravel, wood chips and garden mulch were thought to be adequate shock-absorbing materials. Unfortunately, all of these surfaces had inherent flaws that made them less desirable for playground surfaces. The shift to impact-attenuating surfaces, such as engineered wood fiber, rubber tiles and poured-in-place surfaces led to a remarkable reduction in life-debilitating playground injuries. This move started on a regional basis, first appearing in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, and began to flourish in the 1980s and 1990s throughout the country. As the safety benefits became known, the material gained popularity. Kids enjoyed the soft cushioning and experimented in their play because of it. For example, children were not likely to jump from high surfaces on a playground with asphalt or concrete underneath, but with soft surfacing, they felt more comfortable with height and jumping.

Not only did kids and parents like the surfacing, but there were several other stakeholders with a vested interest in finding safe products to install as playground surfacing. Playground owners and operators feared the effects of an increasingly litigious society and wanted to make their playgrounds "as safe as possible." Consumer advocates began researching and drafting playground safety standards to serve as guidelines for purchasing public playground equipment and surfacing.

In 1991, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) revised its Handbook for Public Playground Safety to include types of surfacing and their respective fall heights. "Fall height" refers to a critical height value of at least the height of the highest designated play surface on the equipment. With the CPSC's data, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) took it a step further by creating ASTM F1292 — Standard Specification for Impact Attenuation Under and Around Playground Equipment.

This standard provided a useful test method for measuring the impact attenuation of the surfacing material to prevent a life-debilitating injury. Manufacturers utilized independent testing laboratories to validate the fall height protection their surfacing provided. This standard has undergone several revisions and is still used today by manufacturers and consumers to determine the resiliency of the surfacing in an appropriate playground setting.

In addition, the playground industry understood that playground surfacing added much more to a playground than just a surface for kids to play on. Playground surfacing provides play value to children and can be used to enhance a child's play experience. For example, rubberized tiles and poured-in-place surfacing can be installed in creative ways, with colorful, fantasy designs such as rivers, oceans, jungles or forests, and can even provide life-sized playing boards for various games. Kids can also use loose-fill surfacing to build mountains and transport the surfacing into imaginary structures like castles and forts to incorporate into their play.