Protect & Serve

Playground Safety Starts With the Surface

By Wynn St. Clair

Playgrounds should be fun, carefree places that inspire physical activity and young imaginations. And, fortunately, they can offer children both those things as long as recreation managers uphold their obligations to build and maintain safe sites. Such work starts with the selection of the correct protective surface, the foundation of any safe and inviting playground design. The options are endless, and the necessity is indisputable.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has long recognized the potential hazards that exist with the use of playground equipment, with more than 200,000 estimated emergency-room-treated injuries annually. The most recent study of 2,691 playground-equipment-related incidents reported to the CPSC from 2001 to 2008 indicates that falls are the most common hazard pattern, with 44 percent of those injuries stemming from falls.

The numbers were even higher a few decades ago, when an unplanned drop from the monkey bars could find a child thudding onto grass or, even worse, blacktop.

No other injury type on the playground comes remotely close, as the next highest category—equipment-related hazards, such as breakage, tip-over, design and assembly—represented 23 percent of recorded injuries. The other hazard patterns involved entrapment and colliding with other children or stationary equipment.

"The surfacing under and around playground equipment is one of the most important factors in reducing the likelihood of life-threatening head injuries. A fall onto a shock-absorbing surface is less likely to cause a serious head injury than a fall onto a hard surface," the CSPC states in its Public Playground Safety Handbook.

Of course, no surface can prevent all injuries. Broken bones and head bumps can occur at any playground, but with thoughtful planning and proactive testing, recreation managers can dramatically reduce injuries by selecting surface types that best address their playgrounds' dimensions and features and their patrons' abilities.

Concrete, asphalt or other hard surfaces should never be directly under playground equipment, according to the CPSC. Grass and dirt are not considered viable protective surfacing because wear and environmental factors can reduce their shock-absorbing effectiveness. Carpeting is also not appropriate unless it is tested to and complies with standards set by ASTM International, the organization formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials.

Fortunately, there are a plethora of options to consider, and many won't break the budget. The playground industry has greatly reduced the chances of injury in recent years by manufacturing various types of shock-absorbing surfaces. From loose-fill materials to pour-in-place surfacing systems and artificial turf, there are myriad ways—most of them environmentally friendly—for recreation managers to make their playgrounds safer, more accessible and better looking.

"The options are endless," said Jesse Padilla, a playground safety consultant based in North Texas. "In this day and age, there's no excuse for not having the proper surface. There is something out there to fit every budget and every playground design. It's a matter of assessing and understanding your park's needs and your community's needs."

The Iowa-based National Program for Playground Safety recommends several loose-fill materials or synthetic surfaces, including hardwood fiber chips, mulch, pea gravel, sand and shredded rubber. Loose fill has become the most popular surface on American playgrounds because of its relatively low cost.

Loose-fill materials, without question, are the most inexpensive safety option. But they're also—at least in theory—the surface requiring the most maintenance.

Playground caretakers should check the play area regularly to ensure it's spread evenly, safety experts said. Heavy playground traffic never fails to redistribute the surfacing, leaving dangerous bald spots that provide little cushion to falling children.

Experts also recommend the surfaces—which should extend a minimum of six feet in all directions from the edge of stationary playground equipment—be raked daily. They must be inspected regularly for sharp objects such as glass, can tops and jagged rocks.

Loads of loose material also may need to be trucked in once a year to make sure the appropriate depth is maintained. These surfaces should be maintained to a depth proportionate to the structure's height. The equipment manufacturer can provide the exact proportions, but a general guideline is a 12-inch depth for equipment eight feet or lower.

"Loose-fill surfaces are popular for a reason," Padilla said. "With the right maintenance, they are probably the most user-friend and consumer-friendly option out there."

Other increasingly popular options are unitary materials, which are generally rubber mats, tiles or a combination of energy-absorbing materials held in place by a binder that may be poured in place at the playground site and then cured to form a unitary, shock-absorbing surface.

In Oak Ridge, Tenn., the recreation and parks department last year opted to replace the wood fiber surfacing at the Cedar Hill Park playground with a poured-in-place rubber safety surface. Officials made the move in order to enhance "accessibility while still providing the required safety protection against falls."

The move was an important one for the community, which quite rightly feels a sense of ownership toward the playground. In May 2011, nearly two dozen volunteers replaced an aging play structure with a state-of-the-art playground made of recycled plastic. The new schematic—created with input from local school children—features whimsical touches, such as a fire pole, pirate ship and rock climbing wall, among other things.

It was a much-needed update to a playground that the community had helped build two decades earlier. The structures, which had been enjoyed by tens of thousands of children over the past 20 years, had become somewhat antiquated, especially as accessibility standards evolved. Despite regular maintenance, the heavy use and weather conditions had worn the structure beyond simple repairs.

The new playground not only met a need, but it also conformed to the city's sustainability initiative. It will ultimately require less maintenance and have a longer life expectancy than that of the old wood structure, officials said.

The poured-in-place surface initially had been included in the planning phase of the community playground project, but the technical nature of the installation required the use of a qualified contractor. Rather than delay the project during the busy summer season, officials went ahead and placed engineered wood fiber over the entire surface.

A portion of the wood fiber surfacing was removed and used to maintain surfacing levels at other city playgrounds. In its place, a concrete base was installed, with the poured-in-place rubber installed over the concrete. The strategically placed rubber surfacing also was intended to provide far better access to playground equipment for special needs children.

"Completion of this phase is exciting as it follows the goals of the community volunteers who assisted during the building blitz, which was to have a fantastic playground that could be enjoyed by everyone," Josh Collins, Recreation and Parks director, told the community at the onset of the resurfacing.

In Bettendorf, Iowa, recreation officials also found themselves confronted with a surfacing dilemma recently as the poured-in-place rubber surface at McManus Park began to show signs of age. The park—a crown jewel in the community—had installed a universally accessible playground about a dozen years ago. With help from the Junior League of the Quad Cities, the $200,000 playground enjoyed heavy use for more than a decade, thanks to its fun-inspiring features and its proximity to a major interstate.

The park's popularity, naturally, took a toll on the playground surface after 12 years, and the rubber was in need of repair. Recreation officials weighed the cost of patching the surface against completely replacing it. In the end, they decided a new surface would be the most cost-effective decision, which meant they needed to start investigating the many options available.

The playground equipment had several years left in it and city officials wanted a surface to share that lifespan. When a national synthetic grass manufacturer offered a warranty that would complement the playground structure's timetable, the city found its solution.

The new surface, which cost about $62,000, boasts a five-year warranty and is expected to last until the city needs to replace the existing playground equipment in another 15 to 20 years, Bettendorf Parks and Recreation Director Steve Grimes, said.

The decision, however, did not come without some trailblazing on the city's part. Bettendorf is one of the first communities in Iowa to use synthetic grass, so recreation officials had few opportunities to investigate the turf's practical use in the state. Park supervisors knew the surface would be safe, as it is installed with padding and infill to meet all the safety standards required by ASTM for critical head falls. It also boasts an antimicrobial, non-allergenic surface.

Equally as important, the synthetic grass was ADA-compliant and would not need any additional considerations to make the surface functional for children of all abilities. It was a key factor given the park's original mission of offering a universally accessible play space.

"We felt it best addressed the qualities that we were looking for," Grimes said. "Anytime you have a new product like this, you have to do your research, and we did. We were confident we made the right choice."

The city installed the synthetic grass over the existing rubberized safety surface earlier this year, and the project has been met with rave reviews from the community. The two-week installation was so seamless that, at least at first glance, the new turf looks simply like a darker-colored section of lawn in the grass-covered park.

Park patrons have commented on how soft the surface feels and have made jokes about wanting to install it in their own yards. Participants in Camp Mac, a program for special needs children, had no problems navigating the surface. One camper who uses a wheelchair was able to get out of her chair and crawl on the grass because it was so comfortable.

"The feedback has been very positive so far," Grimes said. "Our residents are encouraged that we continue to provide the resources to make the surface and the playground as safe and updated as possible. It also looks great and blends in well with the grass around it. We're very happy with it."

Regardless of which surface is chosen, recreation managers should keep in mind that, when exposed to the sun, some dark-colored materials have caused blisters on bare feet. Whenever possible, ask the manufacturers for light-colored materials or provide shading to avoid direct exposure to the sun, experts said.

Manufacturers also should provide testing results to indicate the proper depth for such synthetic surfacing. Though they require less maintenance than their loose-fill counterparts, synthetic materials should regularly be checked for gouges, burns and loose areas. They also should be swept daily to prevent sand, dirt and rocks from becoming a slipping hazard.

Though there has been some concern about the impact of synthetic playground surfaces, research repeatedly has shown that such areas pose no significant environmental threat to air or water quality and pose no significant health concerns. One of the most recent studies—a 2009 report from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Health—concluded that crumb rubber materials used in synthetic turf presented no threat to user safety.

The findings mirrored a 2008 staff report from The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) on various synthetic athletic fields. The evaluation concluded that young children are not at risk from exposure to lead in these fields.

The report showed that newer fields had no lead or generally had the lowest lead levels. Although small amounts of lead were detected on the surface of some older fields, none of these tested fields released amounts of lead that would be harmful to children.

"We examined samples to determine the presence of lead and to test for hand-to-mouth exposure by simulating repeated skin contact," said Dr. Joel Recht, director of the CPSC's chemistry division. "The synthetic turf either had no detectable lead or would not expose hands to levels of lead which would present a risk to children."

Lead is present in the pigments of some synthetic turf products to give the turf its various colors, according the CPSC's finding. The report also found that some conditions such as age, weathering, exposure to sunlight, and wear and tear might change the amount of lead that could be released from the turf.

"As turf is used during athletics or play and exposed over time to sunlight, heat and other weather conditions, the surface of the turf may start to become worn and small particles of the lead-containing synthetic grass fibers might be released," according to the CPSC report. "The staff considered in the evaluation that particles on a child's hand transferred to his/her mouth would be the most likely route of exposure and determined young children would not be at risk."

Most concerns can be easily addressed by proactive recreation managers, experts said. Playground supervisors should be vigilant about maintaining their surfaces and replacing them as they become worn. Children also should be encouraged to wash their hands after using the playgrounds, especially before they eat.

If these guidelines are followed, no one—including recreation managers and parents—should lose any sleep over their synthetic surface.

"Absolutely not," Padilla said. "The most recent synthetic surfaces are safe, as study after study shows. I don't worry about the playgrounds that have any of these safety surfaces. I worry about those that don't."

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