Feature Article - March 2012
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Safe and Secure

Balancing Safety and Fun on the Playground

By Deborah L. Vence


When deciding on a surface for a playground, you should consider more than one type, to offer children a variety of textures.

"Artificial grass is a nice texture for some areas, particularly to give children the texture and feel of grass," Zeager said. "Engineered wood fiber fits nicely with a natural theme where you might see logs and climbing boulders, plus you can easily make it thicker in areas where you need more fall protection; it's very scalable in that regard. Most unitary surfaces can be made thicker where needed, too."

And, before a surfacing product is laid out, you should plan ahead.

"Plan ahead for any changes in surfacing thickness, so the proper excavation and base prep can be made," Zeager said. "Wear mats are an affordable way to maintain sufficient fall protection in the high wear areas. In addition to the fall height of your surface, consider your playground's sun exposure. Burns from hot surfaces are often an afterthought. If your playground isn't shaded, choose a surface that doesn't get as hot.

"So, consider surfaces with lots of fall protection, surfaces that can be made thicker in areas where your fall height is higher, consider wear mats for high wear areas to keep your fall protection intact at those places and consider the sun exposure," he said. "In summary, first of all, we're seeing an increased interest in prefabricated, easy-to-install foundations, if you will—a base that provides drainage and stability for the playground's protective surfacing."

We have recognized that the vast majority of injuries occur from falls off of equipment and onto the underlying surface.

Second, he said, there also is more interest in surface-mounted wear mats and bonding products that allow playground owners to upgrade their loose fill for little money. Playground owners are seeing maintenance requirements drop significantly to the point where they can keep up with it the way they should be.

"Plus, the upgrades, if done right, are helping them to improve accessibility, too," he added.

Finally, Zeager pointed out that there also is increased interest in a surface that will remain safe for a long time, which can be achieved by choosing one that has proven how long it remains resilient, installing it over a good base and keeping up with maintenance.

Anne-Marie Spencer, vice president of corporate marketing for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based playground manufacturer, noted that there are a number of surfaces available, in both "loose fill" and "unitary" varieties, to provide safety to the overall playscape.

"Playground buyers should always work closely with their sales person to ensure they understand the lifetime maintenance schedule of the surface they choose," Spencer said. "While loose fill surfacing like wood fiber offers a lower initial cost, budget must be planned for ongoing maintenance and topping off to ensure it stays as compliant and fall-attenuating as originally designed."

Whatever the case may be, there are many surfaces available for placement under and around playground equipment.

"Rubber tiles and poured-in-place are options for children ages 0 to 5," Thompson said. "Loose fill surfacing, such as sand, pea gravel, wood products and loose rubber products are appropriate for school-aged children."