Grounded Play

Looking Beneath the Safety Surface

By Sue Marquette Poremba

New York City Council members voted overwhelmingly to post warnings at its public playgrounds that remind parents and children that the surface can become dangerously hot in the summer sun.

In Indianapolis, there is concern about the amount of mulch there is (or isn't) on its playgrounds and how to address the problem of keeping children safe.

Playground surfaces have come a long way from the days from 30 years ago, when slides, swings and monkey bars were installed over asphalt, grass or gravel surfaces with dirt or sand at the landing areas. Today, there is more attention to installing surfaces designed to lower the incidence of injury. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger are treated in emergency rooms for playground-related injuries, and most of those injuries are caused by falls to the surface.

There are financial considerations to consider, as well. Injuries that occur on playgrounds cost money. For example, Indianapolis Parks had to pay $300,000 after an injury occurred in a swing accident. Beyond liability, playground surfaces need to be maintained, and as more communities and organizations are slashing budgets, finding playground surfaces that require minimal maintenance costs has become a more important consideration.

To better protect children from injuries, as well as cut down on overall cost, more communities and organizations are turning to surfaces that may be more expensive at initial installation but require little maintenance and do an admirable job at lowering or preventing injuries.

Know Your Options

There are two primary types of surfacing systems—loose-fill and unitary.

According to the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), acceptable loose-fill materials include hardwood wooden fiber, shredded rubber, sand and pea gravel. These surfaces must be maintained to a depth proportionate to the height of equipment, and reliable manufacturers will provide testing results to indicate the appropriate depth of the materials. Loose-fill surfaces are among the most commonly found on the playground, as they are cost-effective options, though the maintenance required is more stringent.

"One of the common drawbacks to loose-fill systems is the maintenance required to constantly deal with the kick-out under slides and swings," states one Mansfield, Texas-based designer and developer of play environments on its Web site. "Engineered wood fiber differs from ordinary wood chips in that the wood is mechanically shredded in such a way as to facilitate the material to thatch together. This thatched material makes for a more reliable and consistent surface and resists movement within the play area more than chips."

The NPPS states that acceptable synthetic surfaces include rubber tiles, rubber mats or synthetic poured-in-place surfaces. These kinds of surfaces can incorporate a variety of aesthetically pleasing colors and patterns. They also are slip-resistant when either wet or dry.

Artificial turf manufactured specifically for use on playgrounds has also become an increasingly popular option.

Like Grass, But Safer

The Summer Grove Baptist Church in Shreveport, La., decided to use the synthetic turf solution for their preschool playground.

"Our church bought a mall and that's where we're located," explained Barbara Reynolds, children's minister. "There is no outside grass at all. It's all parking lot. So our challenge was to either dig up the parking lot and plant grass or find another solution." Because digging up the parking lot to plant natural grass would have been too expensive, the church chose something that looked like natural grass, but could be installed over what was already there.

Reynolds said the church has play areas for different age groups. One is 448 square feet and the other is 842 square feet. The play areas are used every day and needed to be able to stand up to the wear and tear of heavy use. "On the older side we have the grass that has the granulars, and on the little kid side, we have the carpet grass," she said. "We were afraid the younger kids would try to pick up the granulars and eat it," she added, explaining why she went with two different surfaces.

Another issue the church needed to consider was the fact that the parking lot has no trees for shade. "The turf feels like real grass," Reynolds said. "The children can take their shoes off. In the heat of the summer, it gets hot like grass, and in winter, it is cool like natural grass would be."

Employees from the manufacturer stop by the playgrounds once or twice a year to do light maintenance on the turf, mostly refilling the pellets in turf of the older children's playground.

Before making her decision to go with the turf, Reynolds said she did investigate other playgrounds in town. She felt that rubber would be too hot, especially on a parking lot with no shade. She said when she saw the artificial turf used in another location, it stood out and seemed like the best option for her situation.

The same turf is used underneath the playground equipment, but there is a fall zone. "It is more padded underneath the taller pieces of equipment," Reynolds said, "but you can't tell by walking on it that it's any different from the rest of the playground."

The Navy Child Development Center in Atlantic Beach, Fla., also turned to synthetic turf for one of its playground surfaces, according to director Pamela Schwartz. The other play areas use a poured-in-place rubber surface.

"For each age group we have, we have an adjoining playground to its classroom," Schwartz said, "and part of the program is that the children experience outdoor activities at least twice a day."

Schwartz recently remodeled the pre-toddler-aged playground. "Because their play toys aren't too high off the ground, we went with the artificial turf grass," Schwartz said. "This playground is at the front of the building, so aesthetically, it is very pleasing to the eye. It's beautiful, green, and lush."

She went with a surface that resembles natural grass and uses no infill. "I'm from Pennsylvania," Schwartz said, "and this turf feels like the grass you'd find there, soft and thin." It has a soft surface directly underneath the grass, but the bottom layer is gravel, allowing the turf to drain well.

"The children gravitate to it," Schwartz said. "They lay on it, they sit on it, and they don't have to worry about insects and ant hills." Fire ants are a problem in the South, she added, but the artificial turf allows the children to play without concerns of getting bitten.

The other playgrounds use the poured-in-place rubber surfaces. "We were able to decorate them in a marine pattern, with blues for water, tan for sand, and cutouts of sharks and whales," she said. "This surface is easy for the children to ride their bikes on."

This surface is also spongy and soft for the children. "If they fall, the children won't hurt themselves."

Choosing the surfaces for the playgrounds had a lot to do with the way the children play, Schwartz explained. The youngest children spend a lot of time on the ground, and Schwartz liked that she could provide them with a soft, grassy, safe area to play on. She likes the turf so much that when it comes time to redo the other playground surfaces, she is going to add the turf to parts of those areas too, while leaving other areas rubber, to accommodate the more active play of the older children.

Cleanup is also a breeze with this turf, she said. "We just have to sweep it," Schwartz explained. The solid surfaces are swept with a leaf blower. "We have sand that gets spread around." It is also pressure-washed once a year to prevent mold and mildew buildup.

Tile by Tile

The Injury Free Coalition for Kids at Columbia University works to prevent injuries to children, particularly in their physical environment, by building coalitions in communities around the country.

"We try to create safe play spaces," administrator DiLenny Roca-Dominguez said, "and that means developing safe playgrounds."

The Coalition has grant opportunities for sites around the country to build playgrounds. Roca-Dominguez said the Coalition prefers playgrounds that use a rubber surface made of interlocking tiles. "They provide easy maintenance and last a lot longer than other materials we've seen used, she said. "Plus, we work in a lot of difficult neighborhoods, so if there is vandalism that takes place, we can easily remove that particular tile and replace it."

The surface, she explained, is a square tile made of recycled rubber. "You can get regular black or you can get colors," Roca-Dominguez said. "Depending on the region where we're working, we try to get the premium colors that don't absorb as much UV rays. That way the children aren't burned if they fall down."

Another plus to this surface is the easy installation, Roca-Dominguez added. Community members help to install the playgrounds, and having tiles that interlock makes the installation process go that much more smoothly. "Someone comes in and glues them in place and the surface is good to go for 10 or more years," she said.

Most importantly, Roca-Dominguez stressed, this surface keeps children safe. The rubber tiles help prevent injuries from falls, and the color options keep the rubber from getting dangerously hot.

"Wood fibers or the shredded rubber... can hide hazards," Roca-Dominguez said. "You can't really clean those materials." For example, people will bring pets to parks and playgrounds and don't clean up after the animal waste. That waste can be hidden in materials like wood chips, but can be easily found and cleaned on the rubber tiles.

Debris can be swept off, but there are also special vacuums available to keep the playground free from trash and leaves.

She admitted that this is not an inexpensive playground surface. "This surface is about one-third of the cost of the entire playground," she said, "but the overall value is much better. You don't have to maintain it as much."

The tiles that are used on the Coalition's playgrounds provide a thick, cushiony surface for the children. The tiles cover the entire area surrounding the equipment.

"However, there are standards we need to uphold," said Roca-Dominguez. "For example, if we put the [surface] under the swings, it needs to be doubled the height of the swing on each side. That's why, even though the immediate playground and equipment ends in a certain area, you'll always see an extra 6 to 10 feet of the surface, in order to keep the children safe."

The Coalition has built about 40 playgrounds in 29 cities, including in an area hit by Hurricane Katrina. "When we went to those areas to rebuild playgrounds, the playground surface was still intact," said Roca-Dominguez. "Even after being under water for days on end. That was an immediate indication of the quality of the surface."

The tiles sit on top of hollow cores, and that helps to drain the playground surface. Plus the edges of the playground ramp to meet the ground, and this helps to keep water from puddling. However, if there is a hard rain storm and puddles form, they are easily removed with a wet vacuum.

Go Green, Save Green

While much of this story focuses synthetic playground safety surfaces, such as poured-in-place surfaces, rubber tiles and synthetic turf designed for playgrounds, most playgrounds still rely on some type of loose-fill surfacing. And with the economy threatening budgets across the country—at the same time that more and more communities are aiming to go green—it may interest you to know that an engineered wood fiber surface is a choice that can help you save money while you go green.

Engineered wood fiber does not leach any harmful or toxic substances into the air, soil or groundwater, and it is also a renewable product, made from clean, pre-consumer wood waste. This waste is generally a byproduct of making lumber. That means your playground is helping keep construction waste out of landfills, while saving trees.

It also is a great solution for playground owners who are facing budgetary pressures. It is one of the most cost-effective options available, and the simple installation process also means a lower cost.

Two keys to consider when using this type of safety surface include proper drainage and proper thickness. Ask your manufacturer about adding drainage, as well as wear mats in high-traffic areas.

It's Miraculous

A lot is taken into consideration when installing a playground—its location for instance and the costs involved. Wood fibers are one of the most common types of playground surfaces, in part because of the lower cost of installation. According to Roca-Dominguez, wood fiber surfaces require a minimal up-front investment, making them an attractive option for organizations raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the entire playground. However, they do require more maintenance and periodic replenishment.

Loose-fill surfaces also are more difficult to maneuver on for kids using mobility devices. That's why The Miracle League, which allows kids of all abilities to play baseball, has partnered with a manufacturer of poured-in-place surfaces to create baseball fields and playgrounds with handicapped children in mind that are also safe, accessible surfaces for all children.

These poured-in-place athletic surfaces are installed at Miracle League facilities across the United States, a resilient, seamless surface for both the infield and outfield. Made from recycled rubber and polyurethane, the field provides a combination of exceptional footing and smoothness, eliminating barriers and dangers for children using walking aides or for those with visual impairments. Its porous design also prevents puddles from forming on the surface.

The ballfield surface is a roll-out surface that is similar to the warning track surface in Major League parks, explained Diane Alford, national executive director of The Miracle League. The rolls are approximately 4 feet wide and 1/2 inch thick. The sections are then glued together.

When searching for that right surface, it was almost like a Golidlocks experience. Some of the surfaces were too hard; others were too soft. The surface that is used is just right. "The wheelchairs respond on it really well, and the ball responds to it well," Alford said. "When the ball bounces on the surface, it is not going to bounce back up and hit kids in the face."

In building these baseball fields, The Miracle League realized that some of the communities did not have playgrounds, Alford added. "Baseball only happens one time a week. With a playground, it's a place where parents can take their children 24x7."

Alford said that one of the goals of her program is to bridge the gap between mainstream and children with disabilities. "We put up our ballfields in the midst of existing ballparks," she said, "so they are going to the same ballpark area as their siblings or school friends. So we thought, why not a playground? Playgrounds bring together all children."

The Miracle League playgrounds are designed to allow children with special needs to have the same access to the play systems as other children. And for this reason, Alford added, it is important that the playground surface be equally accessible.

Some of the playgrounds also use a poured-in-place surfacing system, a two-layer system consisting of a resilient basemat made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled rubber and polyurethane, with a tough, wear-resistant top surface made from post-industrial recycled rubber and polyurethane. The rubber and urethane components are mixed and applied on site, allowing for complete customization and the use of eye-catching colors. The thickness of the material can be modified to meet varying critical fall heights within a playground.

This type of surface allows for different designs and patterns, Alford said. "We could have a solid color with stars through it," she said. "The stars are made of the same material. It's all poured very hot, almost like an asphalt."

That the product is made from recycled tires is definitely a plus, Alford added. "Many states have funds for organizations that use recycled products, so that can help pay for the project," she said.

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-Inch Depth9-Inch Depth12-Inch 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 thickness of the surface is dependent on its location on the playground. The surfaces under equipment are thicker than the surfaces of the open areas. "Also, some pieces of equipment may only require 2 inches and other pieces require 4 inches," Alford said. "Or you may have a piece equipment that's 10 feet high and needs a thickness of 8 inches underneath."

Alford said her organization chose the rubber surface because it was the only type of surface that is smooth and level. Kids using electric wheelchairs or on walkers struggle on turf surfaces, she said. "This type of rubber surface is accessible to 100 percent of the children."

It is also the safest surface, she believes. "The rubber isn't any hotter than other product," she said. As for falls, she added, "Some of these kids intentionally fall out of their wheelchairs just to test it. We have 100,000 children across the country playing on these surfaces, and we've never had a child injured because of the surface."

Alford also cites another consideration regarding the surfaces used for the ballfields and playgrounds—latex allergies. "We're very picky about the products we choose because of the materials used," Alford said. "We don't use any vendors who cannot guarantee that there is no latex in the product. The reason for that is, because children with disabilities are in and out of hospitals, they've developed an allergy to latex and other materials." By knowing the products used to make the surface, Alford can feel comfortable that the children using the playgrounds and fields won't have any adverse reaction.

Maintenance is also relatively easy. "The playgrounds and ballfields are pressure-washed maybe once every year," Alford said. "You use a leaf blower to clean it from leaves. In a place like Myrtle Beach where there is a lot of sand, you can use the blower to clear it off."

The surfaces last about 20 years. "When you compare that to the cost and maintenance of a regular baseball field, you are going to spend a lot more money keeping that field a safe place to play," she said. "In the long run, it's a lot cheaper to use the rubber surface."

Choosing a suitable surfacing material for a playground can be a difficult task. Communities and organizations need to balance safety concerns with budgets and maintenance issues. But it must also be a surface that will encourage kids to play because, as Pamela Schwartz said, "the playground is an important part of a child's day."

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