Feature Article - November 2018
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Play It Safe

The Key Elements of Playground Safety Surfaces

By Rick Dandes

Playgrounds provide a place for children to not only expend their energy, have fun and physically interact with their peers, but also to offer a diverse, inclusive environment, whether in an urban or rural setting, where children of all ages can develop their emotional, social, emotional and cognitive skills.

But the public municipalities, school districts, and privately owned recreational facilities that provide playgrounds also carry with them the responsibility of keeping users safe.

ATSM, an international standards organization based just outside of Philadelphia, has written playground surface specifications that mandate a strict adherence to safety standards. And, because it is not only the right thing to do, but also because of liability issues, surface manufacturers adhere to the code, and sometimes even exceed the requirements.

How often do children use play equipment in a manner inconsistent with its original design intent? asked Brennan Prins, director of a Petrolia, Ontario, Canada-based company that manufactures playground safety surfaces. "A well-designed guardrail can become a high-wire act, or a slide can turn into a giant wave to be surfed down," he said. "Despite our best efforts, the nature of children's play makes falls to the surface inevitable."

The facts bear him out. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates that more than 70 percent of playground injuries are due to falls to the surface.

"Because of this," Prins said, "it is a wonder that protective surfacing options remain one of the most overlooked and under-evaluated aspects of playground design."

So, let's say your facility needs a new playground.

"Don't forget about the surfacing," said Darren Toomey, CEO, of a Driftwood, Texas-based turnkey safety surfacing company. "Realistically," he explained, "the surfacing you choose is one of the most important choices you will make in the process, because your ability to decrease the risk and liability of serious injuries related to falls depends on the kind of safety surface material you choose. Determining the best playground safety surface to meet your needs means taking many factors into account, from the playground equipment you choose to your budget and maintenance capabilities."

Options Abound

After 30 years in the business, said Richard Hawley, vice president of sales for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based playground systems manufacturer, "I've come to the conclusion that there is no perfect surface. They all have their pros and cons, based on how someone sees them used."

There is a difference between the usage patterns at a playground in a regional park out in the middle of the woods vs. an urban playground that sees daily use, he said. "A remote playground basically will be busy on Saturdays and Sundays. An inner-city school playground is getting used almost every minute of the day."

Remember the old days when a playground was often stationed on an asphalt surface and had just traditional monkey bars and swings? Hawley reminisced. "It is a whole new game these days—what we see now coming into surfacing," he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 70 percent of playground injuries are due to falls to the surface.

As playgrounds become more sophisticated, there is a lot of learning that can be incorporated into the surface design, he said. "Games and activities will be designed into the surfaces to give the children play value. We are incorporating sound into the surfaces. One of the trends I like very much is called inclusion, where someone can design a playground with different types of surfaces and add playground equipment to ensure that children with all types of abilities can play. What a change from when we grew up."

The importance of the surface beneath the play equipment is important, in terms of inclusiveness, but don't forget the need for an accessible route to and from the play area, as well as outdoor fitness areas and other amenities. "More emphasis on accessibility and routes of travel for ADA is a must," Hawley noted. "You'll need different surfaces to get there. Customers have to decide on their budget, maintenance and durability, and determine what they want to get out of the surface as they begin their due diligence."

The functionality of the different types of materials used in a playground safety surface is the most significant concern for a school or public entity that is installing or upgrading a playground. There are two basic types of playground safety surfaces: loose fill, which includes sand, pea gravel and the commonly seen wood mulch, engineered wood fiber and rubber mulch; and unitary surfacing, which includes rubber tiles, poured-in-place surfacing, bonded rubber mulch and artificial turf.