Supplement Feature - September 2010
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Creative Cushioning

Adding More Safety to Play

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Loose Fill

Types: This sort of surface can be created using wood chips (specially engineered wood fiber for playgrounds, not what you grab in the garden area), pea gravel, sand, or artificial elements like rubber nuggets or shredded rubber—even recycled tires. Local weather and geography frequently influence the popularity of different loose-fill substances: lots of sand in Arizona, lots of wood mulch in the Northwest. Looking for what's locally available can simplify delivery and installation, as well as reduce costs.

Benefits: When properly installed and maintained, loose-fill surfaces can be quite helpful for cushioning falls, and their up-front costs are usually much lower than other surfacing options. Because there are a variety of choices for loose fill, you can select something to highlight or enhance the look of your play space—from an attention-grabber, like multicolored shredded rubber to neutrally colored pea gravel, which just blends in to a natural setting.

Baytown, Texas, recently switched two of its playgrounds from loose-fill wood fiber to locally available rubber mulch. This change offers new benefits in that rubber mulch minimizes airborne dust and particles, and doesn't splinter the way wood can.

Dustin Schubert, park planner for the City of Baytown Parks and Recreation Department, also believes rubber will help control maintenance costs. Although it was "more expensive from the get-go," rather than needing to replace it each year, the rubber mulch will be useful for as long as 10 years.

Special Considerations: For a loose-fill surface to be effective at cushioning falls, it must be both correctly installed and maintained. In other words, you need enough of it—the Consumer Product Safety Commission's Handbook for Playground Safety (see resources sidebar) provides guidelines for how many inches of loose-fill material are required to cushion potential falls from equipment of varying heights—and it must remain evenly distributed and uncompressed.