Ensuring Safe and Accessible Playgrounds

More than 200,000 kids are injured on playgrounds in the United States every year. Careful attention to playground safety can help your community avoid becoming a statistic. While you can never eliminate every risk on the playground—risk is part of what makes play fun for kids—you can drastically reduce potential problems by paying close attention to safety issues. In addition to choosing age-appropriate play elements, you need to encourage proper supervision and establish an ongoing maintenance program. But perhaps most important, you need to carefully consider the surface beneath your playground. After all, 80 percent of playground injuries are caused by falls to the surface.

Q: What should we know about playground safety surfaces?

A: There are two broad categories of playground surfacing: loose-fill and unitary materials. Many playground owners use loose fill like wood chips, sand, wood fiber or rubber mulch. These surfaces generally cost less up front, but they require close attention over time to ensure they remain at the proper depth to protect kids from injury. You'll need to send staff members out to rake the surfacing back under events like swings and the run-outs of slides.

Unitary surfaces like poured-in-place surfacing and tiles offer several advantages. You won't need to be involved in such intensive maintenance over time, and accessibility is improved. You'll need to check for wear over time in heavy traffic areas. This is where tiles may be beneficial. It's simpler to replace a few tiles, rather than patching a poured-in-place surface.

No matter which type of surface you choose, you need to be sure the manufacturer provides evidence that it has been tested and shown compliance with the ASTM 1292-04 Standard. This standard measures the impact-attenuating properties of the surface. As part of this test, a headform is dropped from various heights, and two key measurements are taken. HIC, or head injury criteria, measures impact severity, and must be lower than 1000. G-max measures the maximum acceleration or shock produced by an impact and must be lower than 200.

Remember that ASTM 1292-04 is a minimum requirement. There are many reasons to look for a manufacturer that goes above and beyond these requirements to provide even safer surfaces.

Q: How do we know the surface will remain safe over time?

A: There can be a big difference between the lab and the actual conditions at your site. Many variables can change the actual

performance of your surface, including age, moisture, maintenance, exposure to temperature extremes, exposure to ultraviolet light, contamination with other materials, compaction, loss of thickness, shrinkage, flooding and more.

Be sure to ask your supplier how their surface will handle the specific environment at your site, and how well it will meet standards in the long term. Some manufacturers will guarantee that their surface will continue to exceed the ASTM 1292-04 standard requirements over many years.

Q: Can our surface choice impact the accessibility of our playground?

A: When it comes to accessibility, unitary surfaces really can make a big difference. Think about it. If you're in a wheelchair, do you really want to attempt to roll over mulch? A unitary surface offers a stable surface. And it's not just wheelchair users who will benefit. Any children who are less stable on their feet will find the more solid surface easier to navigate.

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