Feature Article - November 2005
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Handy Solutions to Common Problems

By Stacy St. Clair, Jenny E. Beeh and Kelli Anderson

How To Select Playground Surfacing

When it comes to selecting playground surfacing, nothing beats the old adage to "play it safe." Choosing the safest playground surfacing materials depends on a variety of issues: climate, maintenance demands, ADA compliance and manufacturer's recommendations. And let's not forget the issue of cost that usually runs a very close second to safety when making that final surfacing selection.


The usual list of surfacing contenders include the loose-fill varieties like pea gravel, sand, wood chips and engineered wood fiber as well as poured-in-place synthetic and rubber surfaces. Although loose-fill materials are the cheapest for upfront cost, they can be the most challenging to maintain.

Kick-out areas, such as around slides and swings, require constant monitoring and regularly scheduled raking, cleaning and refilling to keep materials at their optimum safety depths. The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) suggests a depth of 12 inches for loose-fill surfaces around equipment with an 8-foot fall rating. When well maintained, they can be an attractive and safe surfacing choice.


In keeping with the "less is more" philosophy, rubber tiles, rubber recycled nuggets and synthetic poured surfaces usually only require a 3-inch depth to achieve the same 8-foot fall rating. Less material per square foot, however, does not mean necessarily a smaller price tag. These materials may cost more initially but ultimately can cost less over time since they require much less maintenance (read: labor and material costs) and last longer. They also come in a wide variety of colors and, depending on the treatment, a limitless variety of designs that add pizzazz to any playground.

And, perhaps even more importantly, rubber and synthetic poured surfaces have the blessing of the ADA. Accessibility—which is required by law for a percentage of ground-level play equipment and at least 50 percent of elevated play components—allows easy access for wheelchairs and walkers. Not surprisingly, caregivers with strollers appreciate these surfaces too.


Another consideration is a relative newcomer to the synthetic play surface lineup: synthetic turf with infill. With its ability to drain away heavy rains through a subsurface drainage system and its rubber infill design for maximum shock absorption, its attention to safety gets extra kudos. In addition, it offers the maintenance-free appearance of lush lawn, which, like real turf, offers greater play options for games like kickball and soccer thanks to its better footing and ball roll quality. All these factors combined, it is no wonder that synthetic turf is growing in popularity.


Another component of the selection and elimination process, however, may be your climate. Mother Nature may simply make some surface selections a no-go right from the start. Wood chips, for example, are not recommended for desert states where insect infestations become a problem. Likewise, in those same states as well as others with high temperatures, some rubber-tire products cannot tolerate the heat.


If choosing one surface over another seems difficult, perhaps the best of both worlds is for you. Some playgrounds find they are better served with a mix of surfaces—wood fiber or loose fill at the proper depths for fallout areas and solid-surfacing paths for ADA-accessible play features and transfer points. Which ever you choose, loose fill or solid, natural or synthetic, organic or colorful, there is a playground surface that's best for the kids in your community to play it safe.How To Run a Profitable Concession Stand

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