Playground Safety Surfacing

For those over 40, childhood playgrounds were generally places of fun activity and hard falls. Getting hurt wasn’t uncommon and injuries often occurred as a result.

The equipment kids played on back in the 50s, 60s and even into the 1970s was not always the safest by today’s standards. And the playground surfaces were often simply dirt, grass or even asphalt. 

According to the PlayCore.com website,

“Since the initial period of time when playgrounds were developed in American cities as a reaction to the industrialization of America, people have been concerned with playground safety. In those days, playgrounds were often large metal contraptions resembling gym equipment, often 15-20’ above ground. Surfacing generally consisted of sand, screened cinders, and clay, or combinations of the above, which were rolled until packed solid.

By the 40’s and 50’s asphalt was by far the most popular choice, as it prevented hard packed earth and sharp protruding rocks in heavy use areas, or the dust bowls commonly occurring with loose fill surfaces of the day. No distinction was made between general play areas and areas under equipment.”

Yep – landing on asphalt after falling eight or nine feet from the top of the monkey bars was not fun. Nor very safe.

In fact, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) OrthoInfo website, more than 220,000 children under the age of 14 are treated in hospital emergency rooms across the United States each year for injuries occurring on playgrounds.

They also note that,

“Falls from the equipment to the ground are the top cause for childhood emergency room visits due to playground-related injuries. Children fall because they slip, lose their grip, or lose their balance while playing on monkey bars, swings, slides, merry-go-rounds, and seesaws.”

While some of the injuries occur from hitting a piece of playground equipment while falling, the impact with the playground surface is the most common point of injury.

Making Play Safe – From the Ground Up

The hazards of falling from a tall piece of playground equipment onto a hard surface prompted private manufacturers to develop products to serve that need. 

For example, both the Firestone and Goodyear Companies each created rubber powder and pelletized rubber respectively, for use on playground surfaces in 1950s. Though the stuff did not likely provide adequate diminished impact, it did kickstart the search for more effective rubber surfaces for playgrounds.

Government agencies and others addressed this issue throughout the late 60s and 70s, but nothing much was done to standardize and codify standards until second half of the 1980s. 

In September 1986, the Association for Testing Materials (ASTM F08.52) held an organizational meeting for a task group on Playground Surfacing. The result was ASTM F 1292, “Specification for Impact Attenuation of Surfacing Materials within the Use Zone of Playground Equipment.”

The term used in the playground industry, “impact attenuation”, is simply a clinical way of saying “reduction of the force of an impact.” And this is the primary purpose of adequate playground safety surfacing.

According to PGPedia.com,

“Impact attenuation of playground surfacing material is the measure of its shock absorbing properties. The shock absorbing properties are measured by dropping an instrumented metal headform onto the surface and recording the force of impact and the time of deceleration. The specifications for impact attenuation are found in ASTM International Standard F1292, ‘Standard Specification for Impact Attenuation of Surface Systems Under and Around Playground Equipment.’”

The goal of these standards is reducing the likelihood of life threatening head injuries since these are the most serious type of playground injuries.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) develops and updates safety guidelines for both commercial and home playground equipment. These standards are voluntary and are not required by law, but they are designed to help keep children safer on play areas.

However, The U.S. Access Board is a federal agency concerned with providing Americans with disabilities equal access to services and areas. The agency requires playgrounds and other recreational facilities to adhere to ADA and ABA standards. The standards require, among other things, safe and accessible routes to and between playground equipment, and safe surfacing for all users and playground equipment.

Safety Surfacing Options

In some instances, it may be tempting to consider simply installing play equipment that doesn’t require safety surfacing. While this may be possible, it does severely limit the types of play equipment that can be used. 

In addition, despite ensuring that all play equipment is low to the ground and, therefore, reduces the likelihood of injury due to falls, the risk is never eliminated. Children can be injured even falling from a height of less than two feet if they fall on their head or outstretched arm onto a hard surface. 

Another key question when designing and outfitting a playground area is what types of safety surfacing are best for preschool age children.

It can be argued that younger children are more prone to falls than older, more agile and play-experienced children. So, it stands to reason that what makes the best safety surfacing for preschoolers should be good for all kids. 

The most common safety surface materials used in playgrounds include:

  1. Pour in Place Rubber Surfacing
  2. Artificial Grass or Turf
  3. Rubber Mulch 
  4. Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF)

When one takes into consideration the need to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements as well as affordability and durability, most experts will agree that engineered wood fiber, or EWF as it’s commonly known, is the superior choice for most playgrounds.

EWF is by far the safest and, when properly maintained at a 12-inch thickness, it absorbs an impact of up to 12 feet. EWF is designed specifically for playground safety surfacing, although it resembles wood mulch.

Unlike large wood chips, EWF is closer to rubber mulch because of its fibrous texture. EWF is made up of small fibers that are weaved tightly together to form a dense, firm surface that meets accessibility guidelines and absorbs impacts. And EWF is sustainable and all-natural.

At Playgrounds Etc., we offer engineered wood fiber (EWF), as well as rubber mulch, pour-in-place and rubber turf for surfacing playgrounds of all sizes. All our playground surfacing materials have been tested for compliance with ADA wheelchair accessibility as well as ASTM 1292, which tests the ability of these materials to protect children from falls.

Josh Bartlett

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