Feature Article - March 2012
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Safe and Secure

Balancing Safety and Fun on the Playground

By Deborah L. Vence


To help ensure safety on the playground, the right surface product can make all the difference. And, it turns out that there are three common causes of unsafe surfaces, noted Robert Zeager, sales manager at a Middletown, Pa.-based company that specializes in playground surfacing.

"First, surfaces that are not installed properly," Zeager said. "By now, most people are aware of the types of surfaces that are safe for playgrounds. But, what isn't as widely understood yet is that every surface needs a good foundation. More specifically, every surface needs a stable, well-drained base. Let's face it, budgets are tight and resources are stretched thin. So, the temptation is great to skimp on the base prep since no one will see that. For unitary surfaces, a good base is essential for strong seams, to maintain a level surface, provide for consistent and adequate fall protection throughout the play area, and more."

He explained that for almost any surface, a poor base leaves the surface with little to no drainage to reduce impact attenuation, wet and dirty surfaces, puddles and standing water, and very hard surfaces in freezing temperatures. Not to mention the fact that it leaves the owner without warranty and liability protection.

Playground buyers should always work closely with their sales person to ensure they understand the lifetime maintenance schedule of the surface they choose.

"So, what you see is a playground with a fun, inviting structure that says, 'come and play here.' The structure looks good, the surfacing looks OK on top, but underneath it may be a different story and the children and parents will not realize it until an injury occurs and people start asking why it happened," he said.

That leads into the second common cause for an unsafe surface: inadequate maintenance.

"Some surfaces require the use of certified installers for repairs or maintenance," Zeager said. "Consider whether you have the money and one available in your area that can respond fast enough to your needs. Waiting several weeks for a contractor to get there to make the necessary repairs is not necessarily good risk management.

"Other surfaces may not require certified contractors, but simply require more maintenance than your staff can keep up with," he said. "Consider a lower maintenance surface, outsourcing some of the maintenance, or if the money isn't there for either of those, then ask the manufacturer about affordable, maintenance-reducing upgrades, so that your staff can keep up with it."

Finally, the third common cause for unsafe surfaces is loss of fall protection as the surface ages.

"There are many certified surfaces to choose from today that provide excellent fall protection in the lab, and when first installed on the playground. However, as the surface ages, will impact attenuation diminish? If so, at what point in time does the surface become unsafe? Ask the manufacturer for a warranty and a set of test results on an aged surface," Zeager said.

"There have been some pretty cool structures designed in recent years. Some are starting to go taller, use climbing nets, incorporate boulders, ropes, and other natural climbing elements. The children love the variety of textures and natural elements and challenging climbing opportunities. They love the challenge of climbing to higher heights," he said.

"We say, fine. Just make sure you install a protective surface designed for that fall height," he added. "Use a surface that provides more fall height than the equipment requires, if possible, since children will often use the equipment in ways we adults did not intend."