Supplement Feature - September 2013
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Ground Zero

Choosing the Right Playground Safety Surface

By Rick Dandes

ADA Requirements and More

Under and around playground equipment, it is important to make sure that the surface cushions falls and is wheelchair accessible. Poured-in-place rubber enables children with limited mobility to actively play alongside their peers. Poured rubber surfaces can also offer play value aspects, through the creation of inlaid patterns and games, and even by embedding sound chips so that the surfacing makes sounds when stepped on. The possibilities are endless!

Some municipalities might want to consider incorporating multiple surfacing types into a single park site. For example, a tile area around the slides and access points promotes highly accessible play pathways for looping play, where children choose to do the same activities again and again in loops, and EWF can then be placed under high decks and adjacent open space. Combining multiple surfacing types can sometimes be more economical. Various surfacing types offer tactile transitions that promote sensory development for children with and without disabilities.

"Clearly, a unitary safety surface tends to appear more accessible and welcoming to individuals with limited mobility," Anderson observed. "One approach that we have used in Columbus is to provide a unitary surface arrival space between the transfer station for the playground and one or two accessible play elements. This makes it easier for individuals to reach the playground but is less costly than installing unitary surfacing on the entire playground.

It's important to remember that fall cushioning and accessibility is required throughout the life of the playground—not just when it is first installed, so ongoing maintenance is very important. For loose-fill materials, maintenance includes raking the material into place in high-use areas where it may get kicked out. This is especially prevalent under swings and at the base of slides. Topping off is also important for loose-fill materials. Over time, the material can wash away, degrade, or children could carry it out of the playground. Add more material when the original material becomes low."

Other things to keep in mind: EWF can be uncomfortable with open-toed shoes. Wood splinters are a potential. And drainage can be an issue, Anderson said.

Agreeing with Anderson, Dobmeier added, "The reality of all loose fill is that you need a certain depth of that material to meet shock attenuation requirements. Don't get me wrong, there are certainly some loose-fill materials that are accessible and meet the ADA requirements, in particular, wood chips. But in reality, those loose materials, unless you have people out there monitoring and raking and filling on a daily or weekly basis isn't always at a proper depth. Children fall. The loose fill is supposed to be 12 inches deep, but in high-traffic areas, it might be only three inches deep. The beauty of bound material is that the shock attenuation standards are consistently met for many years.

Here are some other things to consider:

  • Concrete, asphalt, and blacktop are unsafe and unacceptable. Grass, soil and packed-earth surfaces are also unsafe because weather and wear can reduce their capacities to cushion a child's fall.
  • The surfaces may be loosely filled with materials like wood chips, mulch, sand, pea gravel or shredded rubber. Wood chips containing chromated copper arsenate (CCA) treatment are not recommended since the material can pose a potential health hazard.
  • Surfacing mats made of safety-tested rubber or rubber-like materials are also safe.
  • No surfacing materials are considered safe if the combined height of playground and the child (standing on the highest platform) is higher than 12 feet.
  • The cushioned surface should extend at least 6 feet past the equipment. Additional coverage may be needed, depending on how high a slide is or how long a swing is.
  • If there is loose-fill over a hard surface (like asphalt or concrete), there should be 3 to 6 inches of loose-fill like gravel, a layer of geotextile cloth, a layer of loose-fill surfacing material, and then impact mats under the playground equipment.