Supplement Feature - September 2010
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Creative Cushioning

Adding More Safety to Play

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Common Surface Blunders

Seattle-based playground safety expert Thom Thompson said there are three errors he encounters over and over in the course of his work. He highlighted them here so you can avoid them:

"Buy the smallest amount of the cheapest stuff we can get. That's the big mistake," he said. But after a rueful laugh, he breaks it down:

"First, they don't buy enough of something that could help, such as not enough wood chips," he said. "[Wood chips] will work [as a safety surface], but you have to have enough of them.

"Next, people buy the wrong product—something that will never work based on the height of their equipment," he said. "Sand is not going to work with a swing set because swings are eight or more feet tall." Sand just isn't rated for those heights, nor is pea gravel, he added.

And the third infamous mistake?

"People buy a material that requires a level of maintenance they can't support or don't have the personnel for," Thompson said, adding that this often occurs with loose-fill materials, which must be kept in the right place via regular raking and prevented from becoming overly compacted by periodic tilling and "fluffing." "If you can't maintain it, it's not safe," he explained.

Poured in Place

Types: This surface is created by pouring shredded rubber mixed with a binder over a concrete slab.

"It's just like making a cake," Thompson said. "Depending on how high the equipment will be, that's how thick the [rubber-and-binder] layer is, then you have granules the size of a match head. You spread those out [on top], and it makes a hard, protective coat—like fondant frosting!"

Benefits: Poured-in-place surfaces offer lots of room for creativity, as the granules that create the top layer come in all sorts of colors and can be mixed to create a variety of effects, including logos and text. The finished product is seamless, so no dirt gets in and there's nothing to trip over. Water drains through, so occasional mopping keeps it clean. Most manufacturers guarantee poured-in-place surfaces for seven years.

Perhaps most importantly, because the internal layer of springy, shock-absorbing rubber is held in place by binder and sealed from the elements by the top coating, there's virtually no maintenance.

"You can sleep well every night with poured in place," Thompson said. "You're not wondering if the custodian raked it all back in place."