In years past when playgrounds were built over asphalt and gravel, all that was required to maintain them was a resilient pooper-scooper and a hose. But with today’s technologically driven playground surfaces, specific maintenance practices are needed to keep the numerous available surfaces clean and safe.
Playground surfaces are now available in various types of materials, but ultimately they all fall into two categories--unitary or loose-fill. Loose-fill materials are small, independently moving objects, such as sand, wood chips, engineered wood fiber (EWF), bark mulch, pea gravel and rubber mulch. While, on average, loose-fill surfacing material has a lower initial cost, it tends to have more maintenance costs.
I recall complaints not long ago from parents that frequented a park I managed. The neighborhood cats (and I would imagine dogs as well, from the size of some of the excrement I pulled from the bottom of the playground) turned the playground area into a kitty-litter box. This excavation of fecal matter only added to the daily routine of raking debris and maintaining adequate depth under and around the playground’s equipment use zones. Only after I began posting pictures of the various cats and their exploits did the local parents, many of whom complained to me fervently before, take notice and the situation improved.
While fine sand is still the choice for some playground operators, due to financial or budgetary constraints, several key maintenance practices should be followed. Besides maintaining proper use-zone depths around playground equipment and raking the sand for debris (both man- and pet-made), sand should be raked or machine-groomed regularly. Routine grooming not only keeps the sand free from dangerous debris, but also keeps the sand level. Children often dig holes during play, and these same holes then create hazards for other children. Also, the transition ramps and pathways in and around sand playground areas should be swept often. A fine layer of sand can build up and make a child’s first step onto these pathways slippery.
A final maintenance issue directly related to sand playground surfaces is the annual replacement of the material due to wind and children’s activities. Many times, kids go home with sand pouring out of every pocket, shoe and crevice. Within several months, it can become quite apparent that the wind is not only to blame for the loss of material in your playground. Additionally, it can become dangerous to pull material from some parts of the playground use zones in order to fill gaps in others.
Wood Chips And Similar Materials
Wood chips, bark mulch and EWF have similar maintenance routines. As with sand, they need to be raked daily for debris and to maintain the critical height rating around playground equipment. Some other maintenance issues distinct to these surface materials are:
Randomly and almost overnight, large amounts of material disappear from your playground. Neighbors of the park may use material for their yards.
Material will, over time, combine with foreign debris and dirt, sometimes making it impossible to thoroughly clean.
Various types of insects are attracted to and live in these materials.
Due to the elements, foot traffic and daily wear and tear, the material becomes compacted and pulverized, and finally will decompose.
The last of the major loose-fill materials used in today’s playgrounds is rubber mulch. Rubber mulch has come a long way in recent years; most products now are non-toxic, fade-resistant and close to 100 percent wire-free. While the material is different from other loose-fill material, many of the basic components to maintaining it are the same. It should be regularly raked to remove debris and to maintain proper depth in all use zones. Unlike sand and wood products, rubber mulch tends to stay in and around the playground area, lessening the need for yearly replacement. Additionally, rubber mulch does not attract insects and animals.
In general, loose-fill playground surfaces have a lower initial start-up cost than unitary surfaces, but, over time, the regular maintenance and upkeep can become expensive. If daily and weekly care is given to these materials, they can provide a safe surface for your patrons. Lastly, it is always a good idea to keep some extra material on hand; you never know when a neighbor of the park decides to landscape his yard with the help of your playground.
Unitary surfaces predominately consist of two types of products--rubber tiles and poured-in-place (PIP) rubber. While unitary surfaces require less labor and time for upkeep, they do have their own distinct maintenance issues. Although no two products on the market are alike (many variances among products are common, from general makeup to the manner of construction on-site), they all have similar maintenance protocols. Please keep in mind that every manufacturer has its own maintenance guidelines specific to its product. These guidelines should be followed and supersede any information contained within this article.
Rubber mats or tiles have made some strides in recent years. I can remember a playground I had the responsibility of overseeing many years ago that had large, black, interlocking rubber mats. It was constructed over asphalt, and on warm summer days it seemed to literally cook your feet if you stood on it for any length of time. The interlocking capabilities of the mats sometimes tripped kids up as they moved across the surface. Rubber mats still require some periodic maintenance. One item to look for in maintaining the mats is observing the seams for curl-ups or gaps. Manufacturers have worked diligently at resolving this issue, but as with any two opposing elements, they will move, by their very nature, independently of one another. Each mat or tile will receive a different amount of foot traffic and weather, subsequently putting stress on the seams.
Another item to pay attention to with mats is graffiti. At times this destructive and costly behavior seems to appear from nowhere. A good cleaning solution and/or pressure washer should clean the surface. It is always a good idea to check with your manufacturer for its recommendations before proceeding with any graffiti removal. Another type of graffiti even more destructive is gouges or cuts made in the rubber mats. These holes in the material may be the work of vandals, causing potential tripping hazards. Repairs in these cases should be directed to the manufacturer, so that they are handled correctly and the material retains its tested critical-height value.
For the most part, PIP surfacing has the same maintenance issues as rubber mats, minus periodical inspections of the seams between the mats. Gouges by vandals may take more time to repair, depending on the manufacturer and the material. PIP surfaces do need to be swept or blown from time to time, depending on the amount of debris that collects on the surface from adjacent playground materials and areas outside the playground field. However, some PIP surfaces are more porous than others and, as such, need to be cleaned with a power washer or a hose with a pressure-spraying nozzle. Sweeping the surface may not provide the cleanest surface possible.
Many PIP surfaces are made of non-slip material. Unfortunately, often it is not the material that causes a slip on the playground, but debris blown in from adjacent areas. Even a small amount of sand or leaves can get between a child’s shoe and the surface, creating a potential slipping hazard.
Loose-fill and unitary surfaces are different in material makeup and composition and, as such, have their own specific maintenance guidelines. Whether it’s raking cat excrement out and leveling loose-fill surfaces so critical heights are maintained, or blowing debris off a PIP surface, all playground surfaces need regular maintenance to keep them performing at the highest level. A clean and well-maintained playground surface will only increase its effectiveness. Monty Christiansen, NPSI Executive Board member, states that “playground surfacing is a very important component to playground safety, since accident data show that 79 percent of all playground injuries are due to falls, with 68 percent of all falls on the playground surface.” Why not keep your first line of defense from accidents in the best possible shape you can?
Today’s playgrounds can be surfaced with numerous materials, but it is how we care for and maintain those materials that make them safe for our users. If we build playgrounds for the public to use, we in turn accept the responsibility of maintaining them.
Steve Yeskulsky is a CPRP/CPSI currently working in the parks and recreation industry in Sarasota, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.