Supplement Feature - September 2013
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Ground Zero

Choosing the Right Playground Safety Surface

By Rick Dandes

It's no secret among safety experts and park managers that the majority of playground injuries suffered by children result from falls to the surface, often by tripping or by falling from playground equipment. Fortunately, the severity of these injuries can be minimized with appropriate protective surfacing material, which should be soft enough and thick enough to lessen the impact of a child's fall.

Protective surfacing is one of the most critical safety factors on playgrounds, agreed Caroline Boland, product manager of a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based surface and installation group. But, she also cautioned, keep in mind that "there is no perfect surfacing for playgrounds. All surfacing types have pros and cons. So it's important to choose the surfacing that meets the specific needs of your site and playground users. Minimally, all surfacing should be International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) certified to AS 1951 and 1292, surface testing standards. This is very important no matter what playground surfacing you choose."

It wasn't always that way. In fact, not until 1975, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) analyzed playground safety hazards and guidelines, did the trend toward installing safer, shock-attenuating surfaces begin. After that study, woodchips, gravel, rubber and other "softer" materials began to replace harder surfacing materials like concrete, asphalt, hard-packed earth, grass and sand. And all those surfaces eventually had to meet guidelines first outlined in 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by Congress.

With all that to keep in mind, there are still basically only two types of playground surfaces, explained Jim Dobmeier, president and founder of a Buffalo, N.Y.-based surface manufacturer. One is called loose fill, and that ranges from sand and gravel to rubber chips and engineered wood fiber. The other general kind of playground surfacing is called bound material or unitary surfaces, and there are three general subtypes: poured in place, which is mixed and applied on site; tiles, made in factories, shipped on palettes and installed in the field; and a turf-type system that can have different types of underlayment. This surface can be a prefabricated material, a poured material or one covered with some type of synthetic turf.

Due to their features and inherent benefits, there are tradeoffs with every surfacing type, noted Robert Zeager, with a Middletown, Pa.-based manufacturer. "Because of their ability to move or displace when impacted," he said, "loose-fill material like engineered wood fiber and rubber mulch are generally believed to be better at preventing long bone injuries from falls, but they aren't as easy for children and parents who use wheelchairs to navigate and they are significantly more limited from a graphic design standpoint. That's why it's so important to choose the surfacing that achieves the primary objectives of your community's vision."

Jeff Anderson, parks development specialist, City of Columbus (Ohio) Recreation and Parks Department, offered some practical advice for parks and recreation departments looking to find their best, most appropriate surface.

Engineered wood fiber, he said, is "the most cost effective option for playground surfacing, and for initial installation. It is ideally used in large play areas, high fall heights, swings and natural play areas. It meets AS standards for accessibility and impact attenuation. It's also true that natural wood material is an aesthetically appealing fit for a park setting. While EWF works well on most playgrounds, on certain playgrounds where there is an increased emphasis on universal accessibility we are more likely to have the entire surface be unitary in order to maximize access to all parts of the playground."

Where therapeutic recreation and universal accessibility are of concern, the entire playground has a unitary surface, Anderson said. If parks and playgrounds are naturalized, there is an emphasis upon EWF for the surfacing.

Many playground owners believe using a wood chipper to chip downed trees is the same as the engineered wood fiber sold by playground companies, but that's just not true, he continued. Never go with mulch or wood chips that are not certified for playground use. They could contain metals, chemicals or worse, and have no guarantee of fall cushioning properties. EWF contains a precise formula of fine and larger particles to ensure proper compaction for wheelchair accessibility and fall cushioning.

Bonded wood fiber is another choice that looks natural, and is pervious and accessible. Using it reduces maintenance of EWF and reduces blowing or scattering wood fiber. It is ideally used in natural play areas and to increase accessibility. "The one caveat about this surface is it requires a certified installer," Anderson said.

Artificial grass looks natural and clean. This surface is ideal for child care centers and nature-themed play areas. Rubber tiles are a wonderful solution for densely populated urban play areas. Both artificial grass and rubber tiles require certified installers.

A poured-in-place rubberized safety surface is perfect when accessibility is the priority, Anderson said. "It's attractive and easy to maintain, and available in a variety of colors. It allows for additional play areas, especially for younger children, and it is least affected by rain events. The surface is playable sooner."