It’s a beautiful spring day. Your kids are at the local park playground. You hear a scream and see your child on the ground. You run to see what happened. He has fallen off of the monkey bars to the hard ground below and broken an arm.
This may sound a little morbid, but it’s not an uncommon occurrence. Safety surfacing for playground equipment is by far the best defense against playground injuries…and liability.
So, as public servants, how do we keep our children safe? Who’s responsibility is it to check the surfacing? How do I know when surfacing needs replaced? What kind of surfacing is the most effective? All very valid questions. Let’s start with the first one.
How do we keep our children safe? I think we can all agree that no one wants to see a child injured while playing on playground equipment. According to the National Playground Safety Institute, the number two reason of death or serious debilitating injury is “falls to hard underlying surface.” So how can we make sure that children aren’t hurt? The answer is simple. If you are the caretaker of play area, do regular checks on the surfacing. Especially if the equipment is heavily used. The most common places for surfacing to wear down are in heavy traffic areas such as swings, slides, and merry-go-rounds. If the surfacing is an engineered wood fiber (playground mulch) measure to see if it is at least 12″ deep. If it’s consistently low all around, call a supplier and have it replaced. If it’s higher in some places than in others, rake it out so that it’s consistently 12″ all around.
How do we know how much surfacing is needed? Well that is going to depend on the equipment you have. There are several loose fill materials you can use. The most commonly used (and least expensive) is Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF). This type of material is ADA compliant for wheelchair use, and can be used for up to a 12′ critical fall height. A critical fall height is the distance from the highest point the equipment can be used to the hard surface below. So if you have a piece of equipment that a child can climb to 10 feet and jump off of, you want to make sure the surface is ready for the impact. Please notice I said “seriously injured.” A scraped knee or a sprained ankle are not considered “serious injuries.” The American Society for Testing and Materials International, or ASTM as it is more commonly called, is the go-to source for all playground safety guidelines. They consider a serious injury something that will physically scar a child for life, or cause death. So, technically, even a broken bone is not considered a “serious injury” unless it is going to cause the child physical or mental impairment for the remainder of his/her life.
So back to surfacing…there are several “loose fill” options a playground connoisseur can choose from. EWF we have already discussed. The next is rubber mulch. This is a more expensive loose fill option. However, there are many color options to choose from. Rubber mulch will protect a child for up to a 12′ fall height as well. This is also a great grant opportunity. If you are working on a grant that requires recycled materials, 99% of this type of surface is made from recycled tires. Of course, I would always check with the supplier you are working with for their exact spec. We use NoFault Rubber Mulch here at Countryside. No Fault offers a 10 year fade warranty on all colored much. Color options include black, brown, terra cotta, green, or blue. They also offer it in nugget form (small chunks) or shredded (looks more like mulch).
The next option for loose fill surfacing is pea gravel. If you have pieces of equipment that have a designated play surface of over 5′ this is not a recommended surface. I have seen slides that are 12′ high with this type of surfacing at schools before. This could cause a child serious harm if the child should fall or jump off the highest point. This type of surfacing is okay for things like merry-go-rounds, saddle spinners, or gliders. I don’t recommend this type for swings, slides, or large climbing structures.
Finally, our last loose fill option is sand. This may be a good option for a playground that is close to a beach. Here in Indiana/Kentucky I find it more of a nuisance than a good option for surface. Cats, dogs, and wildlife like to use it as a toilet and it’s VERY messy. Sand is also only recommended for equipment that has no more than a 4′ critical fall height. That’s not very high considering many structures are at least 6′.
There is also a type of surfacing called “bonded” or “unitary” surface. The first I would like to talk about is a poured in place surface. This type of surfacing is, in my opinion, the nicest looking and most easily maintenanced. However, it is also the most expensive. You have to pay for luxuries no? Installed correctly, this type of surface is good for up to a 10′ critical fall height. This type of surfacing allows for creative designs, many colors, and most importantly…NO MESS! There are also no seams so kids can’t pick at it and pull it up. This is great for playgrounds that have an organic flowing shape. We use several vendors for this type of surfacing. Typically, I send an email with the square footage, layout, color choice, and design choice to each vendor. The one that comes back the least expensive is the one we go with. It is so important that should you choose this option you have it professionally installed. It lays out a lot like concrete. However, if it is done incorrectly, it may not accommodate the fall height needed for your equipment. It can also be easily maintained with do-it-yourself patch kits should it need repaired. Let’s be honest, no playground is safe from vandalism. Eventually, you will need to patch a hole.
The next bonded surface you can use are rubber tiles. This type of material is also easily maintained and good for up to an 8′ critical fall height. There is also no mess involved with this type of surfacing. It can be laid either over top of a concrete or a compacted stone base. Should one of tiles become damaged, they can be easily removed and replaced. They also come in a variety of colors. Countryside uses several vendors for this product as well. As with the poured in place, I send in the information to the vendors and whichever one comes back the least expensive is the one I go with. This is great for wheelchair accessibility. We don’t recommend this type of surface for organic shapes because produces a lot of waste. However, it is great for areas that are squared off!
The last type of unitary surface is relatively new to the playground market and that is Play Turf. This type of surface looks and feels like grass and is great for wheelchair accessibility. As with poured in place and tiles it is great for wheelchair accessibility. Turf is also one of the options that is good for up to a 12′ fall height. There is no mess and the material is permeable. Countryside uses NoFault for our turf vendor. They can also create custom looks for whatever style of grass you have on your plans!
Now that you know about each kind of surfacing, which kind should you use? That is going to depend on your playground equipment first and foremost. Then you need to look at budget. Unitary options tend to be the nicest looking and easiest to maintain. They are also the most cost efficient in the long long run. However, they are the most costly up front. So if you have the wiggle room in your budget go with a unitary option. If not, then I would go with a rubber mulch or EWF option.
Who is responsible for maintaining the surfacing? The owner of the playground equipment is responsible for it. So if a child is injured the liability is typically going to fall on whoever owns the equipment, not the person who installed it or the owner of the land. I know that typically, the owner of the equipment is the same as the owner of the land. In some instances though, the equipment is donated and doesn’t technically belong to the land owner. Therefore, the owner of the equipment is responsible for maintaining the safety surfacing underneath around the equipment safety zones. I would have a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) like myself come and do an inspection if you think something is wrong. It never hurts to be diligent and over cautious when it comes to the welfare of the public’s children. It saves the owner the liability and keeps a child from a serious injury. I would have a maintenance person walk the playground at least once a week to check the surfacing. Loose fill typically needs to be 12″ deep in all areas and will need raked frequently. Bonded or unitary surface needs to be check regularly for cracks, holes, burns, and vandalism. No matter what type of surfacing you use, make sure it is free of debris, chemicals such as gasoline or oil, animal feces or urine, standing water, algae, fungi, or moss. Also check to make sure there are no tripping hazards present such as a large gap in between tiles or holes in poured in place surface.
How do I know when surfacing needs replaced? This is an easy one to answer. Use those wonderful things called eyes. Honestly, if a playground is being inspected regularly it will be obvious when the surface needs replaced or fixed. I was recently at a playground in Cincinnati that had a poured in place surface that was in pretty bad shape. A poured in place surface should be to grade and nice and smooth. On this particular playground it was obvious that it either wasn’t installed correctly or it was poorly maintained. It had hills, ridges, and large holes. Plus, in front of many play components you could see the foam underneath the surface. I was able to devise all of this from just walking the playground. If you really want to know how you can tell…get out a measuring stick. If you have a loose fill option, and the equipment is measured at about 10′ high, you should have a MINIMUM of 12″ of surface. Rake the surface out and place the measuring stick all the way to the hard surface at the bottom. If it shows less than 12″ then you need some more. Many playground companies will put marks on the posts of the equipment that show where the surface should be. Check these regularly.
As far as effectiveness, my personal favorites are EWF, rubber mulch, and poured in place. These can be guaranteed for the max of 12′ critical fall height. So even if your equipment is 8′ high, you have enough there to cover you for a few more feet if you need to add or replace a piece of equipment down the road. They are also easy to use in the design process. Since they are not one large piece until they’re installed, you can work them into any area you need to.
What can I expect from color options? Let me begin by stating 2 things. First, light colors tend to show dirt and wear faster. Second, really dark colors can cause blisters on bare feet in the summer. So I would go for a happy medium. Greens, blues, browns, and reds are typically your best bet. Stay away from black rubber mulch. It will dirty feet and shoes and can ruin clothes.
Here are some helpful links about surfacing. Some of these will give you an abstract and require you to buy the rest. However, if you need help or have questions please feel free to call me. I am here to help!
CPSI Certification: http://www.nrpa.org/CPSI/
I hope this has cleared up some confusion. I know sometimes having too many choices isn’t the best answer. It can make things even more confusing. If you need more answers please call me at the office. I am here to help!