Creative Cushioning

Adding More Safety to Play

By Jessica Royer Ocken

You've seen them in action. Turn those little bodies loose in a play space and they head mostly one direction: up. This explains why research compiled by the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) implicates falls to the surface in nearly 70 percent of reported playground injuries and why the majority of injuries (53 percent) on public playgrounds are related to climbing equipment. Since what climbs up inevitably—and sometimes accidentally—comes down, it makes sense to cushion the fall and keep the playground a happy place.

"The standard of care in the industry is that the surface under and around equipment has to accommodate the critical height of that equipment," explained playground safety expert Thom Thompson. "That's what fall protection is all about."

And fall protection is what much of safety surfacing is about—but not entirely. Despite little monkeys' tendencies to climb, there's plenty of horizontal motion during play as well—they swing, they slide, they run, they roll, they build. So, factors like ease of walking and comfort when sitting also come into play where surfacing is concerned.

Depending on the rules in your state or city, as well as the type of playground you're operating (schools and childcare centers, in particular, are carefully scrutinized), not to mention your insurance company and the parents of those who come to play, you may be required, not just recommended, to meet certain safety standards. So, use the following as a primer on surfaces, and get inspired as you plan to make safe landings an integral part of your playground experience.

Know Your Surface Options

In spots where fall protection requirements are minimal, surface choices like padded artificial turf or a mix of loose-fill material and binder come into play; and where kids remain firmly on the ground, good old fashioned grass is still a crowd-pleaser.

However, options for safety surfacing that provide fall protection can be grouped into three general categories: loose fill, rubber tiles or mats, and poured in place. Read on to sort it all out.

Loose Fill

Types: This sort of surface can be created using wood chips (specially engineered wood fiber for playgrounds, not what you grab in the garden area), pea gravel, sand, or artificial elements like rubber nuggets or shredded rubber—even recycled tires. Local weather and geography frequently influence the popularity of different loose-fill substances: lots of sand in Arizona, lots of wood mulch in the Northwest. Looking for what's locally available can simplify delivery and installation, as well as reduce costs.

Benefits: When properly installed and maintained, loose-fill surfaces can be quite helpful for cushioning falls, and their up-front costs are usually much lower than other surfacing options. Because there are a variety of choices for loose fill, you can select something to highlight or enhance the look of your play space—from an attention-grabber, like multicolored shredded rubber to neutrally colored pea gravel, which just blends in to a natural setting.

Baytown, Texas, recently switched two of its playgrounds from loose-fill wood fiber to locally available rubber mulch. This change offers new benefits in that rubber mulch minimizes airborne dust and particles, and doesn't splinter the way wood can.

Dustin Schubert, park planner for the City of Baytown Parks and Recreation Department, also believes rubber will help control maintenance costs. Although it was "more expensive from the get-go," rather than needing to replace it each year, the rubber mulch will be useful for as long as 10 years.

Special Considerations: For a loose-fill surface to be effective at cushioning falls, it must be both correctly installed and maintained. In other words, you need enough of it—the Consumer Product Safety Commission's Handbook for Playground Safety (see resources sidebar) provides guidelines for how many inches of loose-fill material are required to cushion potential falls from equipment of varying heights—and it must remain evenly distributed and uncompressed.

Wood chips compacted by hundreds of running feet, scooped into a pile by industrious builders, or washed away by the rain won't do their job when someone falls off the jungle gym. And even under pristine circumstances, "wood materials and most sands will settle by a third in the first three months, whether kids are on them or not," said playground safety expert Thompson.

"The more kids are on them, the more they settle, and the tighter they get. Then they can't protect from [falls from] the prescribed height anymore," he said. Thompson said he usually advises his clients to over-fill their loose-fill areas to compensate for settling. If nine inches of material are required, put in 12, just to be safe.

Thompson often consults on playground-related litigation and said most cases "involve falls onto inadequate surfaces because of lack of maintenance."

Appropriate loose-fill maintenance includes frequent, possibly even daily, checks to ensure the material remains evenly distributed, as well as periodic, perhaps quarterly, tilling or "fluffing" to make sure the material is aerated and loose, not packed down hard.

Loose-fill materials also are inappropriate for use over very hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt, and they require some sort of border to contain the material and help keep it at the appropriate depth.


Safety is worth taking seriously, so seek the resources available to you as you consider the right surface for your playground or recreational area.

The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) is part of the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa. Visit their Web site,, for a variety of statistics and facts on playground injuries and how to prevent them, as well as to submit questions about playground safety and find further resources to help you as you plan and make decisions.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission's Handbook for Playground Safety is an invaluable reference that provides clear guidelines for selecting and installing appropriate safety surfacing. Follow these rules and suggestions correctly and you're well on the way to creating safe playing environments.

(Available for download at:

Rubber Mats or Tiles

Types: Rubber tiles usually are 2- or 2.5-foot squares that can be adhered to concrete or another hard surface. They're available in a variety of colors and in various thicknesses—the thicker the tiles, the greater the fall protection. Rubber mats offer similar thickness options, but they're one piece, and, in some cases, may be held in place with hardware anchors, rather than an adhesive.

Benefits: Because they provide a more smooth and solid surface, tiles and mats present fewer tripping hazards than loose-fill materials. Earl Caditz, business manager for Newport Children's School Inc. in Bellevue, Wash., noted that mats work well on their playgrounds for tricycle paths and in any sort of grassy area where fall protection is needed (such as around the merry-go-round), but wood chips would "get mixed in with the grass and make a mess."

Multiple colors of tiles can be combined to create a checkerboard or other eye-catching pattern.

"Tiles and rolls seem to be friendlier to designs that incorporate graphics or text-heavy content," said Brian Leonard of Dillon Works! Inc., a company in Mukilteo, Wash., that's known for its creative play spaces at malls and museums. "And [they're good to] cover large areas without any impeding equipment."

Special Considerations: Tiles meet industry standards for preventing head injuries, Thompson noted, but they don't have a lot of give, so they might result in an increased number of limb fractures. So, tiles and mats may not be your best choice for use with tall climbing equipment. They'll work better for areas where sure footing and cushioning for shorter falls is needed, such as the bottom of a slide or an area intended for small children. Talk to various manufacturers. Different products will have different results, and you might find something that can meet your needs.

Tiles and mats usually are more expensive initially than loose-fill materials, but they require very little maintenance—basically just keeping them swept or sprayed clean.

Common Surface Blunders

Seattle-based playground safety expert Thom Thompson said there are three errors he encounters over and over in the course of his work. He highlighted them here so you can avoid them:

"Buy the smallest amount of the cheapest stuff we can get. That's the big mistake," he said. But after a rueful laugh, he breaks it down:

"First, they don't buy enough of something that could help, such as not enough wood chips," he said. "[Wood chips] will work [as a safety surface], but you have to have enough of them.

"Next, people buy the wrong product—something that will never work based on the height of their equipment," he said. "Sand is not going to work with a swing set because swings are eight or more feet tall." Sand just isn't rated for those heights, nor is pea gravel, he added.

And the third infamous mistake?

"People buy a material that requires a level of maintenance they can't support or don't have the personnel for," Thompson said, adding that this often occurs with loose-fill materials, which must be kept in the right place via regular raking and prevented from becoming overly compacted by periodic tilling and "fluffing." "If you can't maintain it, it's not safe," he explained.

Poured in Place

Types: This surface is created by pouring shredded rubber mixed with a binder over a concrete slab.

"It's just like making a cake," Thompson said. "Depending on how high the equipment will be, that's how thick the [rubber-and-binder] layer is, then you have granules the size of a match head. You spread those out [on top], and it makes a hard, protective coat—like fondant frosting!"

Benefits: Poured-in-place surfaces offer lots of room for creativity, as the granules that create the top layer come in all sorts of colors and can be mixed to create a variety of effects, including logos and text. The finished product is seamless, so no dirt gets in and there's nothing to trip over. Water drains through, so occasional mopping keeps it clean. Most manufacturers guarantee poured-in-place surfaces for seven years.

Perhaps most importantly, because the internal layer of springy, shock-absorbing rubber is held in place by binder and sealed from the elements by the top coating, there's virtually no maintenance.

"You can sleep well every night with poured in place," Thompson said. "You're not wondering if the custodian raked it all back in place."

Special Considerations: Certain disinfectants, chlorine bleach, oil and gasoline, and some solvents can damage poured-in-place surfaces, so be sure that these are kept away. (Most of those aren't things you want hanging around a playground anyway.)

Some colors of the outer coat have a tendency to develop a yellowish cast or fade over time, so a special (and more expensive) binder might be needed for certain designs. Poured-in-place surfaces are porous, so depending on the amount of precipitation or other water they'll be exposed to, a drainage system might need to be installed when the concrete base is poured.

Poured-in-place surfacing is definitely the most expensive in terms of initial costs. With the concrete pad and installation, surfacing for a playground can run $35,000 to $40,000—and that's before you have any equipment. But, Thompson is quick to point out that over time—say five to seven years—the cost of personnel to maintain a loose-fill surface, as well as the expense of topping off the material from time to time, will add up to about that same $35,000 to $40,000.

Retrofit vs. Reinvent

It may be that your playground equipment is in fine shape, and you're thinking just a little surface upgrade will do the trick. If you're swapping one sort of loose-fill material for another—wood mulch to shredded rubber, like Baytown, Texas, or maybe pea gravel to wood mulch for some added shock-absorbency—it's usually a relatively simple process. Out with the old, in with the new.

But, before making any sort of switch, check your equipment for a decal on the posts that indicates where the surface must be, suggested playground safety expert Thom Thompson.

If the equipment was initially installed to accommodate 12 inches of loose-fill material, be sure you install a 12-inch layer of the new material, even if its safety rating requires less. This idea is especially important when switching from a loose-fill surface to a poured-in-place or other potentially much thinner surface. If adjustments aren't made—such as a thicker concrete slab or an added crushed gravel base—when the new surface is installed, "every entrance and exit on a composite play structure will have the height wrong by 2 or 3 inches," Thompson said. "The equipment will be noncompliant with the new surface."

Ensuring Safety

Even with all these safety surface options, it says it right there in the CPSC handbook and the NPPS concurs: There's just no such thing as a completely safe surface. The best you can do is follow guidelines and regulations to ensure the safest conditions possible and shield yourself from liability on the unhappy occasion an accident does occur.

Whatever safety surface you select for your playground, be sure you install an adequate amount or the proper thickness (perhaps with a little extra). And be sure to consult the CPSC handbook, the manufacturer's guidelines for the product you've selected, and any state or local rules that apply—just to cover all your bases. Then, once your safe new surface is in place, maintain it rigorously to be sure it delivers the protection you've invested in.

Another source of assistance is an outside expert. Whether employed by the state or an independent private consultant like Thompson, someone whose focus is playground safety will have a useful big-picture perspective to offer as you plan a new playground, assess the safety of the one you have, or embark on a mission to make improvements. And the more customized or unusual your play space, the more likely a safety expert can help. Because their creations go far beyond installing standard play equipment in a sea of wood mulch, "we always work closely with playground safety code experts to ensure we are interpreting the code properly and at least meeting the minimum guidelines," said Leonard of Dillon Works!

Not Your Mama's Playground: A Short History of Safety Surfaces

Those of us who remember flailing around on a metal jungle gym plopped on a concrete pad and flying off the swings onto the hard-packed grass below (intentionally, mind you) may be a bit lost amid all of this focus on safety surfacing. But times, they are a-changin', and recommendations about appropriate surfaces for playgrounds have been circulating since at least 1981.

That was the year the Consumer Product Safety Commission first made safety surface suggestions in their handbook. The National Recreation and Park Association had made some recommendations prior to then, noted playground safety expert Thom Thompson, but the CPSC really got people's attention. Ten years later, the CPSC had done its research and a new edition of the handbook now had very specific, scientific-testing-based information about what safety surfaces work best where.

Subsequent versions of the handbook (most recently revised in 2008) continue to offer helpful charts explaining the amount of different loose-fill substances needed with various types of equipment, detailed considerations for different manufactured surfaces, and an explanation of fall heights and recommended fall zones around them (with extra padding).

Putting It in Place

Need some inspiration? Check out these tales of safety surfaces in action:

Newport Children's School Inc., Seattle: Earl Caditz is business manager for Newport Children's School Inc., a company that operates five Seattle-area schools with a total of 1,000 students, ages 1 through 12. Each school has multiple playgrounds, which incorporate opportunities for play from big toys to trike paths to natural grassy hills and fields. With such a range of entertainment options, it's not surprising that these playgrounds incorporate a wide variety of safety surfacing as well.

Areas with taller play equipment have 2.5- or 1-inch-thick mats, other areas have loose-fill wood chips, some are just grass, and some are turf, which in fall zones has padding underneath.

Caditz is serious about his safety surfacing. "It's a huge liability issue," he said. "If someone gets hurt, first thing they want to look at is the surfacing. If it's not in good shape, you're negligent, so you're in trouble."

He's the first to admit that good surfacing is expensive, "but the cost of not doing it properly is of much greater magnitude," he said. "When you have 1,000 kids you do get some broken arms. But the question is, when someone is injured, what did we have in place? Was it a problem with the playground? The surface? Our monitoring? Was there anything we should have done to prevent it? Parents and insurance companies will both be looking."

To keep the playgrounds interesting and appealing—as well as keep the well-used equipment in top form—Caditz said they're constantly evolving, as are their safety surfaces. Fifteen years ago the predominant surface was wood chips, which they took out and replaced with black safety mats when they first became available.

"Then we pulled those and now we have turf with a big pad underneath," he said. "It's like everything—we're always remodeling and tweaking."

Caditz said he's found it useful to have a playground safety consultant advise him as he makes these decisions.

"Surfacing is so expensive. You want someone to help [you look at] the pros and cons and offer outside ideas. I really would advise anyone putting a playground in to look at liability issues and maintenance issues," he said. Will it be easy to get the wood chips where you need them, or does the layout of your playground make guiding in a delivery truck a nightmare? And whatever you decide, "consider the cost of someone getting hurt if you don't do a good enough job," he said.

South 6th Street Playground, Lebanon, Penn.: Shaded by sycamore trees, the South 6th Street Playground is a spot for fun in a natural setting. And the neighborhood association that has cared for the playground for 85 years is proud of this woodsy feel. They didn't want to sacrifice earthy beauty on their way to ensuring safety. In other words, neon-orange shredded rubber was not an option. They were also concerned about damp conditions. Because the play area is largely shaded, it stays moist and mossy. Fortunately, a state inspector who came to assess their playground before awarding them a grant last year suggested a bonded wood mulch safety surface.

"It's like Jell-O with fruit: wood mulch with a binder poured in," explained Sharon Zook, president of the South 6th Street Playground Association. "People don't even know it's rubber. It's like someone with a wig whose hair is always perfect."

At first glance, it just looks like mulchy wood contained by timbers, and there are a few loose wood chips on top to complete the illusion. But below is a surface, complete with drainage that has no danger of being kicked out of place or raked into a giant pile by industrious preschoolers. It also provides firmer footing for little explorers, makes the area accessible to those with disabilities, "and it's easy to push strollers on," Zook said. In addition, the South 6th Street safety surface revamp included special mats at the bottom of slides "so you don't get splinters in your butt."

The bonded wood mulch was put in last year, and this past spring was its first season in action, but so far so good, Zook said. There's been no maintenance needed, but if they do get a worn spot or a falling tree limb rips a hole, the repair is simple, she said. Just fill in more mulch and add binder. The surface can be spot-fixed.

This surface doesn't work in the play area for older children, Zook cautioned, as the equipment there is taller and exceeds the product's fall rating. But loose-fill wood mulch creates a complementary safety surface in that section.

Another thing Zook liked about the bonded wood mulch was the price.

"We priced tiles and bonded rubber—poured in place—and this was much less. Ultimately though, "none of the other [options] came close in terms of looking like they belonged under big trees," Zook said. "We're locked into loose fill for the tall equipment, and this is the only thing that comes close to matching. I don't even know what a runner-up would be. Our playground equipment is green and beige, maybe a few blue accents, so it just disappears into the woods. We're right in city, but it's a natural setting."

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