Supplement Feature - September 2010
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Creative Cushioning

Adding More Safety to Play

By Jessica Royer Ocken

South 6th Street Playground, Lebanon, Penn.: Shaded by sycamore trees, the South 6th Street Playground is a spot for fun in a natural setting. And the neighborhood association that has cared for the playground for 85 years is proud of this woodsy feel. They didn't want to sacrifice earthy beauty on their way to ensuring safety. In other words, neon-orange shredded rubber was not an option. They were also concerned about damp conditions. Because the play area is largely shaded, it stays moist and mossy. Fortunately, a state inspector who came to assess their playground before awarding them a grant last year suggested a bonded wood mulch safety surface.

"It's like Jell-O with fruit: wood mulch with a binder poured in," explained Sharon Zook, president of the South 6th Street Playground Association. "People don't even know it's rubber. It's like someone with a wig whose hair is always perfect."

At first glance, it just looks like mulchy wood contained by timbers, and there are a few loose wood chips on top to complete the illusion. But below is a surface, complete with drainage that has no danger of being kicked out of place or raked into a giant pile by industrious preschoolers. It also provides firmer footing for little explorers, makes the area accessible to those with disabilities, "and it's easy to push strollers on," Zook said. In addition, the South 6th Street safety surface revamp included special mats at the bottom of slides "so you don't get splinters in your butt."

The bonded wood mulch was put in last year, and this past spring was its first season in action, but so far so good, Zook said. There's been no maintenance needed, but if they do get a worn spot or a falling tree limb rips a hole, the repair is simple, she said. Just fill in more mulch and add binder. The surface can be spot-fixed.

This surface doesn't work in the play area for older children, Zook cautioned, as the equipment there is taller and exceeds the product's fall rating. But loose-fill wood mulch creates a complementary safety surface in that section.

Another thing Zook liked about the bonded wood mulch was the price.

"We priced tiles and bonded rubber—poured in place—and this was much less. Ultimately though, "none of the other [options] came close in terms of looking like they belonged under big trees," Zook said. "We're locked into loose fill for the tall equipment, and this is the only thing that comes close to matching. I don't even know what a runner-up would be. Our playground equipment is green and beige, maybe a few blue accents, so it just disappears into the woods. We're right in city, but it's a natural setting."