Playing It Safe

A Closer Look at Playground Surfaces

By Hayli Morrison

The transformation of America's playgrounds has been slow and steady, influenced greatly by European playground design concepts. The greatest driving force, however, is concern for child safety. Industry guidelines now recommend different levels of surface thickness, depending on the "fall height" of playground equipment, which is essentially the maximum height from which a child could fall.

Meeting—or exceeding—the suggested guidelines should be a high priority because falls are the leading cause of injury on the playground. The statistics are staggering: As many as 70 percent of all injuries and 90 percent of serious injuries on the playground are related to falls, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Studies have shown that the risk of injury can be minimized by simply restricting height levels of playground equipment to age-appropriate levels and maintaining the appropriate thickness and shock absorption of surface materials.


On the playground, you initially get to choose between two types of surface: loose fill like wood chips, pea gravel, sand, shredded recycled rubber and other, similar materials; and unitary surfaces, which include poured-in-place surfaces and rubber tiles.

While the initial affordability of "loose-fill" options can be alluring, they can also pose some problems. They are more easily displaced, which can create a safety hazard, and thus require more frequent maintenance. In high-traffic areas like the slide runout and underneath swings, the surface can be displaced fairly quickly. This affects compliance with safety recommendations regarding surface thickness in relation to fall heights.

Such surfaces are also less accessible for disabled patrons. However, a solution to that problem is in the development phase now, at least when it comes to wood chips.

"Wood chips can be difficult to get compacted. It's going to be hard to run a wheelchair or walker through," said Barbara Hatcher, certified grounds technician for the Parks and Recreation Department in Amarillo, Texas. "There are studies under way now to see if they can get some sort of binder in there with it to make it ADA-accessible."

Amarillo currently uses wood chips in some of its city playgrounds, and shredded recycled rubber in others. Both have their advantages, according to Hatcher. Shredded rubber provides a softer landing pad than wood chips in the event of a fall. However, shredded rubber is also harder on lawn maintenance equipment, should it escape the playground's border.

"The kids will throw the materials out, and the rubber tires will have to be raked up, but the wood chips will break down easier," Hatcher said.

Another surface material cropping up on playgrounds more frequently is synthetic turf, which also integrates a certain amount of recycled rubber.

A staple on sports fields for the past decade, artificial grass has appealed to playground designers more over the past five years or so because of its durability and natural appearance.

"Typical concerns like heavy foot traffic, rain—all of that goes away with synthetic turf, so a lot of municipalities and parks services are working toward making that happen," said Josh Thayer, managing partner of a Texas-based artificial turf installation company with roughly 80 percent of its customer focus on playground surfacing and lawn replacement.

The CPSC has historically warned against artificial turf on playgrounds, citing concerns over the surface's long-term shock absorption ability.

"The CPSC does not advocate the use of synthetic turf as a surface for playgrounds," said Scott Wolfson, the CPSC's deputy director for public affairs. "The goal is to have a surface with a non-compression depth of at least nine inches, and I don't believe you're going to achieve that with most of these surfaces."

However, those concerns may become less merited as time goes on. Innovative companies offer an underlayer of finely crushed stone and other supplemental padding to achieve fall heights of up to 11 feet, according to one company's Web site.

With its close attention to the fall-height aspect, artificial turf is now considered by some to be every bit as viable a playground surfacing option as the alternatives. And it provides the added bonuses of very little maintenance and big points in the categories of design appeal and eco-friendliness. With no watering required, it does not tax the earth's natural resources, and with its chemical-free existence, it also poses very little threat to the environment.

Weed Control

Another maintenance concern, weed control, is virtually eliminated with turf and poured-in-place surfaces. Still, even if weeds aren't overtaking the playground itself, they can crop up along the borders. Park maintenance crews must face the challenge of controlling these problems throughout their public use areas in a manner that is both effective and safe for exposure to children, pets and the environment. Though the debate over chemical maintenance has long been overlooked or even completely ignored, rising environmental and safety concerns are pushing the issue to the forefront of the industry.

"These recreational parks and facilities are probably fielding a lot of questions from the public, as well they should because these pesticides are designed to kill living things and children are especially susceptible to that," said Rachel Rosenberg, executive director of the Illinois-based Safer Pest Control Project. "Biologically speaking, their organs are still developing and their metabolism is quicker so their exposure is greater. For instance, they're running barefoot and touching things, hugging the dog who was on the lawn, then putting their hands in their mouth, and so their exposure is greater."

It's an important consideration because studies have shown a strong correlation between chemical herbicides and increased cancer risk in dogs and children. Two separate studies by Purdue University and the American Veterinary Medical Association found that lawn maintenance chemicals could increase the risk of canine bladder cancer and other cancers by as much as sevenfold. In children, exposure to such chemicals has been linked to a significantly increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, according to a 2000 study published in Cancer magazine.

The Safer Pest Control Project has operated since 1994 as the only organization in Illinois dedicated to eliminating the risks associated with chemical maintenance in parks and playgrounds. The organization's efforts have been particularly effective in Chicago, where close to 90 percent of public parks take a natural approach to lawn maintenance by avoiding chemical weed control. Rosenberg said part of the effort includes educating the public that dandelions in public parks are actually a good thing, signifying a healthy, chemical-free lawn. An SPCP-sponsored natural lawncare seminar in February was "incredibly popular," Rosenberg said, adding that the organization is planning another such seminar soon.

"People are scrambling for this information," she said. "A lot of park districts attended this meeting, where their managers are interested in reducing or eliminating their herbicide application."


Many facilities are currently trying to up their eco-friendly ante with LEED-certified design. Playground surfaces such as artificial turf, with its natural appearance and recycled rubber component, can certainly be an integral part of that challenge. Established by the U.S. Green Building Council, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program is a points-based ratings system for construction projects, based on how the design takes environmental concerns into consideration.

"You can achieve a lot of the green points you would get through design because of the recycled tire content a lot of turf products use," Thayer said. "A lot of turf manufacturers use green products in their manufacturing as well, so that's attractive to people who are concerned about the environment."

Poured-in-place rubber surfacing and rubber tiles are also eco-friendly products, and they are taking center stage on many playgrounds. With a flexible array of colors, logos, shapes, games and other designs, these surfaces have the ability to personalize a playground like no other surfacing option can. Poured-in-place involves rubber with a urethane binder, generally with about 80 percent pre- and post-consumer recycled materials. It can support fall heights of up to 12 feet, with a base layer of concrete, asphalt or crushed stone covered by two layers of the rubber-urethane mix, up to 5 1/2 inches in total thickness. With family-friendly activities like cycling experiencing renewed interest as gas prices continue to climb, poured-in-place is also being used on some trails and pathways at a half-inch thick.

"The recycled rubber brings a couple things to the table," said Jim Dobmeier, president and founder of a poured-in-place rubber surfacing company based in New York. "Obviously, it's friendly to the environment, rubber is very resilient, and recycled materials are cost-effective."

Check Compliance

As a way of ensuring public playgrounds are safe, the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) provides a third-party certification service. Detroit Testing Laboratory Inc. validates various manufacturers' comformance to the ASTM F1292-04 Standard Specification for Impact Attenuation of Surface Systems Under and Around Playground Equipment.

You can check IPEMA's Web site at and search by manufacturer, product number and product description to see if the surface you are considering is certified for safety.


Many parks and recreation departments, however, find it a struggle to determine just how cost-effective higher-end options like turf and poured-in-place really are.

"We are seeing bigger, better and brighter playgrounds—but they're more expensive," Wolfson said. "It's the general public and fundraising that helps provide the means for the safer surfacing."

With Amarillo's city parks, Hatcher said the higher-end surfaces are considered "very cost-prohibitive." While the city is hardly alone in its budget constraints, there are certainly several benefits to investing in a higher-end surfacing product.

Turf and poured-in-place do tend to be longer-lasting and more durable, thus requiring lower maintenance and somewhat justifying the cost. Turf is typically "hands-free," with no maintenance requirements for the first two years, according to Thayer. He added that any defects occurring after installation are generally minor and able to be repaired by any maintenance crew.

Turf and poured-in-place both typically have a guaranteed life of at least eight years, and the latter of the two can actually last up to 15 years. In either case, total life expectancy depends upon the amount of use and the intensity of sunlight and other natural elements to which they are exposed.

"As park planners and architects think through it more and more, they are coming to the conclusion that a bound surface is the best option so there's a fixed solution in place," Dobmeier said. "With wood chips or pea gravel, that material will begin to disappear where it's needed most because it's been kicked around, and there's not enough thickness to meet safety requirements. Unless you have a maintenance program that's unrealistic, it's not going to meet requirements.

"Each planner of a playground has before them the challenge of going with a bound system for a little more money up front, versus spending half the money up front, but not really solving the problem," he added. "Basically, they've said, 'We're going to spend less money up front, but for 10 years we're going to have to deal with adding more sand, wood chips or pea gravel.' With the cost of materials and labor, you could make the argument that it actually costs more over the life of the system."

Safe Heights

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, specific types of loose-fill surfaces offer different degrees of safety at various depths:

Fall Height in Feet From Which a Life-Threatening Head Injury Would Not Be Expected:

Type of Material 6" Depth 9" Depth 12" Depth
Double-Shredded Bark Mulch61011
Wood Chips679
Fine Sand559
Fine Gravel6710

For more information on safe surfaces and fall heights as published by the CPSC, visit


The obvious problem with loose fill surfaces is the surface shifting, particularly in high-traffic areas. It requires careful monitoring and maintenance, but as long as you're vigilant, Wolfson of the CPSC said these surfaces are acceptable.

"Displacement has always been an issue of concern, but it has not led us to shy away from shredded rubber and wood chips," Wolfson said, adding that the CPSC recommends playground surfacing be at least nine inches deep. With vigilance from playground managers and the general public, Wolfson said there are no real safety concerns with loose-fill surfacing, the adequacy of which has been proven over time.

"We feel like there's good performance with the gravel, the shredded mulch and wood chips, but it does place a higher responsibility on the playground manager," he said. "There needs to be a higher level of constant maintenance. We do tend to see more displacement in high-traffic areas, where there are high levels of climbing or jumping, like slides or the second level of multi-tier playground sets. Parents can help, too, by just sort of shifting that surfacing back into place."

The CPSC issues guidelines for safe playground design and maintenance in a manual that can be downloaded from its Web site at The organization revised its guidelines manual in Spring 2007 to more specifically reflect safety recommendations on equipment heights and surfacing depths for different age groups. While respected across the industry as the authority on playground safety, the CPSC's guidelines are not mandatory standards. Essentially, it is to be determined by each individual governing body whether playground design will comply with the CPSC's recommendations.

"In the majority of cases, we are seeing very good compliance," Wolfson said, adding that most safety problems are with backyard playgrounds built by homeowners. The goal of the CPSC, he said, is not to be alarmists or whistleblowers, but to simply create the safest play environment possible for children.

"We want to see head trauma that could cause severe injury of a child reduced down to a bruising of the head. We want to see the broken arm that could result from an 8-foot fall reduced down to a bruising of the arm," he said. "Shock-absorbing material has the ability to minimize the need for hospitalization of a child."

It can certainly be a daunting task to stay in step with the latest developments in playground safety and find the necessary budget to fund it. However, in the end, it is a very worthy goal, one that keeps playground managers like Hatcher enthusiastic about the job.

"It's hard to get it all together, but the most rewarding thing is when you hear a child giggle and scream with laughter," Hatcher said. "That makes it all worthwhile."

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