Supplement Feature - September 2010
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Creative Cushioning

Adding More Safety to Play

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Ensuring Safety

Even with all these safety surface options, it says it right there in the CPSC handbook and the NPPS concurs: There's just no such thing as a completely safe surface. The best you can do is follow guidelines and regulations to ensure the safest conditions possible and shield yourself from liability on the unhappy occasion an accident does occur.

Whatever safety surface you select for your playground, be sure you install an adequate amount or the proper thickness (perhaps with a little extra). And be sure to consult the CPSC handbook, the manufacturer's guidelines for the product you've selected, and any state or local rules that apply—just to cover all your bases. Then, once your safe new surface is in place, maintain it rigorously to be sure it delivers the protection you've invested in.

Another source of assistance is an outside expert. Whether employed by the state or an independent private consultant like Thompson, someone whose focus is playground safety will have a useful big-picture perspective to offer as you plan a new playground, assess the safety of the one you have, or embark on a mission to make improvements. And the more customized or unusual your play space, the more likely a safety expert can help. Because their creations go far beyond installing standard play equipment in a sea of wood mulch, "we always work closely with playground safety code experts to ensure we are interpreting the code properly and at least meeting the minimum guidelines," said Leonard of Dillon Works!

Not Your Mama's Playground: A Short History of Safety Surfaces

Those of us who remember flailing around on a metal jungle gym plopped on a concrete pad and flying off the swings onto the hard-packed grass below (intentionally, mind you) may be a bit lost amid all of this focus on safety surfacing. But times, they are a-changin', and recommendations about appropriate surfaces for playgrounds have been circulating since at least 1981.

That was the year the Consumer Product Safety Commission first made safety surface suggestions in their handbook. The National Recreation and Park Association had made some recommendations prior to then, noted playground safety expert Thom Thompson, but the CPSC really got people's attention. Ten years later, the CPSC had done its research and a new edition of the handbook now had very specific, scientific-testing-based information about what safety surfaces work best where.

Subsequent versions of the handbook (most recently revised in 2008) continue to offer helpful charts explaining the amount of different loose-fill substances needed with various types of equipment, detailed considerations for different manufactured surfaces, and an explanation of fall heights and recommended fall zones around them (with extra padding).