Supplement Feature - September 2012
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Protect & Serve

Playground Safety Starts With the Surface

By Wynn St. Clair

Experts also recommend the surfaces—which should extend a minimum of six feet in all directions from the edge of stationary playground equipment—be raked daily. They must be inspected regularly for sharp objects such as glass, can tops and jagged rocks.

Loads of loose material also may need to be trucked in once a year to make sure the appropriate depth is maintained. These surfaces should be maintained to a depth proportionate to the structure's height. The equipment manufacturer can provide the exact proportions, but a general guideline is a 12-inch depth for equipment eight feet or lower.

"Loose-fill surfaces are popular for a reason," Padilla said. "With the right maintenance, they are probably the most user-friend and consumer-friendly option out there."

Other increasingly popular options are unitary materials, which are generally rubber mats, tiles or a combination of energy-absorbing materials held in place by a binder that may be poured in place at the playground site and then cured to form a unitary, shock-absorbing surface.

In Oak Ridge, Tenn., the recreation and parks department last year opted to replace the wood fiber surfacing at the Cedar Hill Park playground with a poured-in-place rubber safety surface. Officials made the move in order to enhance "accessibility while still providing the required safety protection against falls."

The move was an important one for the community, which quite rightly feels a sense of ownership toward the playground. In May 2011, nearly two dozen volunteers replaced an aging play structure with a state-of-the-art playground made of recycled plastic. The new schematic—created with input from local school children—features whimsical touches, such as a fire pole, pirate ship and rock climbing wall, among other things.

It was a much-needed update to a playground that the community had helped build two decades earlier. The structures, which had been enjoyed by tens of thousands of children over the past 20 years, had become somewhat antiquated, especially as accessibility standards evolved. Despite regular maintenance, the heavy use and weather conditions had worn the structure beyond simple repairs.

The new playground not only met a need, but it also conformed to the city's sustainability initiative. It will ultimately require less maintenance and have a longer life expectancy than that of the old wood structure, officials said.

The poured-in-place surface initially had been included in the planning phase of the community playground project, but the technical nature of the installation required the use of a qualified contractor. Rather than delay the project during the busy summer season, officials went ahead and placed engineered wood fiber over the entire surface.

A portion of the wood fiber surfacing was removed and used to maintain surfacing levels at other city playgrounds. In its place, a concrete base was installed, with the poured-in-place rubber installed over the concrete. The strategically placed rubber surfacing also was intended to provide far better access to playground equipment for special needs children.

"Completion of this phase is exciting as it follows the goals of the community volunteers who assisted during the building blitz, which was to have a fantastic playground that could be enjoyed by everyone," Josh Collins, Recreation and Parks director, told the community at the onset of the resurfacing.