Feature Article - November 2017
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Evaluating Your Playground Surface Options

By Dave Ramont

Playgrounds are like workplaces for kids; they provide many important physical, social and cognitive benefits, besides being just plain fun. And while we certainly don't want to discourage our kids from visiting the playground, we also worry about the potential dangers. Close to 200,000 playground accidents occur each year that require emergency hospital visits, with almost half of those involving severe injuries, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And nearly 70 percent of playground injuries come from falls. For this reason, providing a safe playground surface is critical.

Long gone are the days when a playground might pop up on any surface, whether it was asphalt, concrete, gravel, grass or packed dirt. Those are now all deemed to be inappropriate surface types by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). These days, there are basically two types of playground surfaces: unitary and loose fill. Unitary surfaces include artificial turf and carpeting, rubber tiles and poured-in-place (PIP) rubber, while loose-fill surfaces include engineered wood fiber (EWF), pea gravel, sand, wood chips and rubber mulch.

Ken Kutska, executive director of the International Playground Safety Institute and a founding member of the US Play Coalition, is a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI), and has written extensively on playground safety. He points out that there is no perfect playground surface, a sentiment echoed by everyone we spoke with. But he believes that those in charge of choosing playground products need to do their homework and think in the long term. "Owners and designers need to become much more knowledgeable about the products that are out there. Complying with the standards is really easy at first, but maintaining that compliance over the projected/budgeted life of the play area is a whole different issue," Kutska said.

Environment, budgets, maintenance demands and the types of equipment at a playground can all be factors when selecting a surface. So, let's take a look at some of the different materials and surfaces, as they all have pros and cons.

Loose Fill

Generally speaking, loose-fill surfaces are less expensive, drain well and give greater fall height protection, on average, than unitary surfaces. Plus, they don't require professional installation. Jeff Mrakovich works in research and development for a Middletown, Pa.-based manufacturer of EWF and artificial turf grass. He said that another plus of loose-fill products like EWF is that it is easy to maintain their fall protection qualities. "All that needs to be done is to mark your equipment post at the thickness that the manufacturer requires for the fall height of your equipment and top off as needed," he said. "A quick inspection is all you need to see the surface below a mark."

Playgrounds are like workplaces for kids; they provide many important physical, social and cognitive benefits, besides being just plain fun.

But not all EWF products are the same, and consumers should do their homework and ask questions before buying. For instance, is the product third-party certified? The International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) certifies EWF for impact attenuation (standard test method AS™ F1292), and to be free of foreign metals and hazardous chemicals. Additionally, there are standard test methods for sieve analysis, which shows that the product will knit together properly to meet federal accessibility laws. Does the manufacturer offer any liability insurance or warranty programs? And what raw material does the EWF come from? This is critical to the quality and longevity of the product. EWF made from natural virgin wood byproducts means no negative health or environmental effects.

Since loose-fill systems are considerably less expensive than unitary surfaces, they're found in the majority of playgrounds throughout North America. But loose-fill systems are just that: loose. Therefore they do require more continual monitoring and maintenance. The material can be "easily displaced in high-wear areas, and requires frequent raking beneath swings, rotating structures and bottoms of slides," said Brennan Prins, sales manager for a Petrolia, Ontario-based manufacturer of rubber tile systems. Besides being more labor-intensive, Prins added that loose-fill products can settle over time, potentially increasing HIC (Head Injury Criteria) value.

Mrakovich said that the biggest drawback for loose-fill surfaces is maintaining them to ensure compliance with ADA guidelines. "Some things to keep in mind for EWF are to keep it firm, stable and level by raking, levelling and compacting as needed. Do this from the beginning installation, and you'll make your life a whole lot easier."

He advised focusing on the entrance to and from the outside of the play area to the play equipment, as well as the routes of travel from the entrance to exits of accessible equipment, such as transfer platforms and slide exits. "Wear mats at these locations help keep what the ADA calls a 'clear floor space,' which is required to be within 2 percent level in both directions and 30 inches by 48 inches."

Mrakovich added that ground-level components, which can be heavily used by kids with disabilities, also need to have a clear floor space that is level and compacted, and installing wear mats in these areas is also helpful.

Wear mats can assist in providing accessibility and fall protection, and are designed to be used in high-traffic areas. Some feature a concave shape and beveled edges to keep the loose-fill product underneath, and fastening mechanisms also help keep the surface products in place.

Mrakovich's company also offers a "full-depth" mat which, when installed properly, provides the impact absorption needed, requiring no fill under or above the mat. The mats come in various sizes and can be custom-sized as well. "Though wear mats are not a fix-all to the maintenance needed for loose-fill surfaces, they do help to limit the holes that are created in high-use areas like slide exits, swings and rotating equipment," Mrakovich said.