Ground Rules

By Randy Gaddo

This column, LBWA (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public.  So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers, and ask the readers who are the leaders to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences.

While facility-maintenance managers around the world could probably have extended and animated discussions about what the best surface is for a playground, the truth is there is no right or wrong answer.

There are several kinds of playground surfacing to choose from. Photo courtesy of Randy Gaddo

There are several kinds of playground surfacing to choose from. Photo courtesy of Randy Gaddo

According to the The Dirty Dozen--12 Playground Hazards, the number-one hazard on playgrounds is improper protective surfacing.

Each year, more than 200,000 injuries and 15 deaths occur in playground accidents.

Playgrounds are one of the most heavily used--and often abused--facilities that maintenance managers have in their inventory, and the type of surface used will determine how much attention is needed.

Surfaces run the gamut from sand to poured-in-place rubber; what’s considered the “best” depends on circumstances.

What Works
The National Playground Safety Institute’s eight-page pamphlet lists the following materials as acceptable for playground surfaces:

  • Engineered wood fiber

  • Wood chips

  • Sand/pea gravel

  • Synthetic/rubber tiles

  • Shredded rubber

  • Rubber mats

  • Poured-in-place rubber.

The pamphlet’s findings emphasize that most loose-fill surfacing should be maintained at a depth of 12 inches and be free of standing water and debris.

Black-listed is blacktop or asphalt, concrete, packed earth or grass; carpets or mats are also not appropriate unless they are tested and comply with American Society for Testing and Materials standards.

“It depends, of course, on your budget, but it also is dependent on the environment your playground will be in,” says Scott Christopher, CPRP, a parks and recreation and facilities manager in Georgia with more than 20 years experience in the field, including as a certified playground safety instructor.

“For example, if your playground is in a low-lying area that holds moisture, a wood fiber-based product may not be the best option for your project because it will tend to hold water and possibly wash away.”

The right surface can make playground play safer. Photo courtesy of Randy Gaddo

The right surface can make playground play safer. Photo courtesy of Randy Gaddo

Christopher points out that some products can be inexpensive initially, but can add up over time.

“Some types of surfacing can easily be kicked out of the safety zones frequently, and having someone on hand to constantly put it back in place or replenish it can be labor- and cost-intensive,” he says, before adding that this is an especially important consideration in today’s economy.

Christopher emphasizes that safety should always be the number-one priority and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) agrees.

How To Choose
In the November 2010 Public Playground Safety Handbook, the commission states, “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.”

When money gets tight, it’s tempting to short-change playground surfaces, to try and squeeze another year out of what’s there. But recreation professionals know that deferred maintenance on playground surfaces is a slippery slope.

“Our primary focus is always safety,” says Amy Girouard, associate program director of the Summit Family YMCA and Fayette Outdoor YMCA in Fayette County, Ga. “So if the play park needs attention, then that moves to the top of our priority list."

Each year in late spring just prior to their summer camps, Girouard says they have playground-grade engineered wood fibers blown into their 13,000-square-foot wood castle play park that is open to the public and is also used for summer camp.

She says being privately funded through donations makes it even more challenging to find funds for this annual necessity.

The CPSC breaks types of surfacing into two general categories:

  • Unitary

  • Loose-fill materials.

Unitary materials are rubber mats and tiles or a combination of absorbent material held in place by a binder that may be poured in place on site to form a continuous rubberized surface.

Most of these products require professional installation to ensure proper shock absorption and to comply with the warranty; some must be placed on a hard surface—but not all—so be sure to do your homework before buying.

Loose-Fill Materials
Loose-fill materials include engineered wood fiber, a wood product that can look a lot like landscape mulch, but it is designed specifically for use as an approved surface for playgrounds.

There are also rubber mulch products manufactured for playgrounds. Most of these types of products can be self-installed, but the CPSC strongly recommends against installing them on hard surfaces unless they are prepared per guidance in their handbook.

The pros and cons associated with each of the possible playground surfacing products on the market would be too lengthy for this column; suffice it to say that every playground is different so deciding on the best surface is a case-by-case process.

At the end of the day, common sense and safety should rule.

“We simply cannot compromise on safety,” Girouard stresses. “We have to do everything we can to ensure a safe play environment and avoid injuries.”

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. He earned his Master’s in Public Administration and now lives in Peachtree City, Ga. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642, or