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Playground Surfacing and Flooring Pros and Cons

Kids play tough; it means that they will occasionally fall, bruise their knees and skin their ankles. Using hard surfaces like concrete, pavers, earth or grass can be life threatening. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80% of children injuries is a result of falling from playground equipment. Improper surface material multiplies the risk. More than 200,000 children 14 and younger visited emergency rooms with playground-related injuries. A half of them has severe fractures, concussions, internal injuries, dislocations, and amputations. Lethal cases are rare but happen every month in the USA. Studies reveal that 79% of injuries on public playground equipment and 81% of the injuries on residential equipment occurred due to falls. Since playground materials account for a considerable amount of accidents, efforts to study and develop safety guidelines and shock attenuation standards for playground surfaces are continuously elaborating.

The first hazard analysis was published by U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1975. CPSC and ASTM International have been working on developing guidelines for using various surfacing options, but the switch doesn't happen overnight. For example, only 15,4% of public playgrounds in Ontario, Canada complied with the standards in 1994. The Sixth Nationwide Survey of Public Playgrounds found that 75% of playgrounds had inadequate safety surfacing in 2002.

The International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) approved a certification program for surfacing manufacturers for U.S. and Canadian public. Administered by TUV SUD America, both programs continue to investigate and standardize playground safety guidelines. A new certification program was approved in February 2015.

According to Jeff Mrakovich, IPEMA Surfacing Certification Chair, getting the certification is no as simple as "grind up some wood and install it in a playground. Where did the raw material come from - from waste wood like pallets? Are there chemicals or tramp metals like nails in it?" The validation process with IPEMA is not a one-time deal. After successful completion, the participant of a program must retest each year to maintain the safety status. There are many questions to be addressed before choosing the playground surface. How well does it drain? How much does it cost? Is it safe to play on and wheelchair accessible? Can it negatively affect the health of children?

Playground surfacing or flooring, Sand, mulch, gravel, rubber, rubber tiles, mats, crumbs, artificial grass pros and cons, cost, safety, design. Green grass synthetic fake playground.

When you shop for playground surface or playground flooring, it may seem there are many options available but in fact, the options are limited by costs and safety considerations. The most affordable choice are organic and inorganic loose fills like sand, pea gravel, mulch and rubber crumbs. Fit-in-place surfaces like rubber tiles, poured-in-place rubber surfaces, and artificial grass, cost more and have their set of pros and cons.

Sand

In 70's sand had replaced asphalt and dirt. Later, CPSC didn't recommend sand as sufficiently shock attenuated. It resulted in a massive removal of sand from playgrounds. Unfortunately, the testing hasn't been done correctly, and the later study found that this material is an adequate landing surface. Sand is a great play material for kids, and it has some pros and cons.

Pros of Sand:

1. Natural, clean, non-packing material.
2. Low to medium cost.
3. East to buy and install.
4. No flammable.
5. Does not support microbial growth.
6. Some types of sand offer great impact absorption qualities.

Cons of Sand:

1. Can be easily swallowed or get onto eyes, hair, clothes, shoes. The ultra fine sand can be easily breathed by kids.
2. Can hide sharp objects, insects and animal excrements.
3. Can be thrown, scattered and tracked.
4. Get affected by high humidity and freezing temperatures.
5. Hard to walk on.
6. Limited from a design stand-point.

Sand - Higher Regular Maintenance:

1. Regular inspections.
2. Periodic raking, leveling and shifting to prevent compaction.
3. Checked and cleaned from foreign objects.
4. Periodic topping up at least every 2-3 years.

If you prefer sand as your playground surface, make sure to check labels. What you need is a sand from actual beach or river sand. Most supermarket sands are made of crushed rock or crystalline silica, which is a carcinogen according to OSHA and EPA. Some brands contain asbestos tremolite which can put your children at risk of lung cancer.

Pea Gravel

Pea Gravel for playgrounds is a combination of small, smooth, rounded stones of different colors. It is natural, clean, and dust-free, but not safe for infants and children under 3. Use smooth types of pea gravel to reduce risks of cuts.

Pros of Pea Gravel:

1. Low cost.
2. Easy to buy and install
3. Less attractive to animals than sand.
4. Not flammable
5. Does not support microbial growth.
6. Good drainage.
7. Doesn't contain toxic materials.

Cons of Pea Gravel:

1. Potential choking hazard. Can be swallowed and put in ears and nose.
2. Can hide sharp objects, insects and animal excrements.
3. Formation of hard pan under a surface.
4. Can contribute to slip-and-fall injuries.
5. Can be thrown, scattered and tracked.
6. Gets affected by rain, high humidity, and freezing temperatures.
7. Hard to walk on.
8. Limited from a design standpoint.

Pea Gravel - Higher Regular Maintenance:

1. Regular inspections.
2. Periodic raking, leveling and shifting to prevent compaction.
3. Checked and cleaned from foreign objects.
4. Periodic topping up at least every 1-2 years.
5. Clean-up of lawns and sidewalks around the area.

Wood Chips, Bark Mulch

The U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) has determined that wood chips are not considered an accessible playground surface. Playground mulch has to be treated with an anti-bacterial agent to prevent infections from scratches.

Wood Chips, Bark Mulch Pros:

1. Low cost.
2. Easy to buy.
3. Natural appearance.
4. Good shock absorbency.
5. Shed moisture.
6. Does not support fungal growth and insect infestation.

Wood Chips, Bark Mulch Cons:

1. Maybe swallowed, scattered, and get into eyes.
2. Bio-degrades. Compacts and decomposes over time.
3. Can hide sharp objects, insects and animal excrements.
4. Microbial growth when wet.
5. Flammable.
6. Affected by rain, high humidity, and freezing temperatures.
7. Splinters problems. Can cause infections if not treated with anti-bacterial agents.

Wood Chips, Bark Mulch - Higher Regular Maintenance:

1. Regular inspections.
2. Periodic raking, leveling and shifting.
3. Checked and cleaned from foreign objects.
4. Periodic addition and replacement at least every 2-3 years.
5. Clean-up of sidewalks around the area.
6. Limited from a design standpoint.

Engineered Wood Fiber

Engineered Wood Fiber is a processed wood, ground to a fibrous consistency, free of hazardous elements and approved by IPEMA. It is engineered specifically for playgrounds and tree of twig and leaf material.

Engineered Wood Fiber Pros:

1. Fairly Durable.
2. Easy to buy.
3. Less abrasive than sand.
4. Prevent insect infestation. Neither attracts or repels insects.
5. Free of bark and leaves.
6. Stays in place better than any other loose fill surface.
7. Does not decompose as quickly as mulch.
8. Not-flammable.
9. Not chemically treated and natural.
10. No splinters problem
11. Accessible for those with disabilities.

Engineered Wood Fiber Cons:

1. Expensive
2. Can hide sharp objects, insects and animal excrements.
3. Microbial growth when wet.
4. Affected by high humidity, and freezing temperatures.
5. Fungus- and mold- suspensible.
6. Proper drainage system needed to prevent decay rate and keep the surface more resilient during colder weather.
7. Limited from a design standpoint.

Engineered Wood Fiber - Higher Regular Maintenance:

1. Regular inspections.
2. Occasional raking and tamping.
3. Checked and cleaned from foreign objects.
4. Regular topping off with fresh material at least every 3-5 years.
5. Clean-up of sidewalks around the area.

Loose Rubber Crumbs

According to IPEMA standards, rubber crumbs, or rubber mulch is safe for playgrounds and offers head impact protection. Nevertheless, there is a raised public concern about to toxicity of recycled tires. Public health experts state possible heath risks, including cancers, although there is not enough data to prove these claims. Tire scraps always seem like a surface that will be less likely to harm kids when they fall. Using recycling tires also environmentally wise solution. But rubber tires contain chemicals that affect hormones (phthalates), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds and other chemicals known or suspected to cause adverse health effects. The study, done by National Center for Health Research, conclude that a long-term exposure might increase the chances of a child to develop cancer. While it may sound like a small risk factor on a bigger scale, most parents this suspicion is enough to turn down rubber crumbs as an option for playgrounds surfacing.

Loose Rubber Crumbs Pros:

1. Durable.
2. Easy to install.
3. Not abrasive.
4. Does not support microbial growth.
5. Less attractive to insects and animals.
6. Excellent shock attenuation.

Loose Rubber Crumbs Cons:

1. Flammable.
2. Not accessible for people with disabilities.
3. Can contain lead and other toxins. Health concerns.
4. Might be thrown and scattered.
5. Can hide sharp objects, insects and animal excrements.
6. Can get into ears, nose. Dust particles may enter and remain in lungs.
7. Limited from a design standpoint.

Loose Rubber Crumbs High Maintenance:

1. Regular inspections.
2. Occasional raking and tamping.
3. Checked and cleaned from foreign objects.
4. Regular topping off with fresh material at least every 3-5 years.

Rubber Tiles

Rubber tiles offer more safety to the playground surface and easier maintenance than rubber shreddings or nuggets. It is simple to clean and repair and comes in a variety of colors, textures, and thicknesses. Designed to be installed over concrete and asphalt, rubber tiles are durable under a wide range of weather conditions, provide different levels of cushioning, and can withstand heavy traffic. But even within 12 months of installation, it can develop a series of issues that affect the material performance. There are pros and cons to rubber tiles option for children's playgrounds.

Rubber Tiles Pros:

1. Easy to clean.
2. Stays in place.
3. Consistent impact-absorbing qualities.
4. Low maintenance.
5. Decomposes slowly.
6. Wheelchair accessible.
7. Easy to repair.
8. A variety of colors and textures.
9. Slip-resistant.
10. Non-toxic and resists insects and fungi.
11. Doesn't harden, brittle or crack.

Rubber Tiles Cons:

1. Initially expensive.
2. Required professional installation.
3. Flammable.
4. Quality concerns.
5. Can become hard over time, can curl on the edges, increasing a risk of tripping.
6. Must be regularly swept of debris or vacuum-cleaned to prevent compaction.
7. Punctures holes, buckling and separating seams that create opening and changes in level.
8. The water-based mold release residue coat can cause discoloration and slipperiness.
7. Loose debris such as sand, dirt, and small stones on top of unitary surfacing can reproduce slip hazards.
8. Fine particles can accumulate in porous openings, clog drainage and be abrasive.
9. Sophisticated cleaning. Deposits and spills do not drain through the rubber surface. Ices and snow must be removed with Calcium Chloride, urine, vomit, nasal discharge with Borax or STPP solution. Soda and juice must be saturated first, and washed with liquid detergent.
10. Life expectancy - 10 years under average use.

Rubber Tiles Maintenance

1. Regular inspection for damage, holes, seaming separations and debris.
2. Occasional sweeping, blowing and vacuuming.
3. Needs replacement if the impact-absorbing ability is lost.

Poured-in-place Rubber

Poured-in-place rubber surface created a solid base across the entire playground and meets safety standards for fall injuries. A typical poured in place surface system has an underlying cushion layer made of recycled rubber tires installed over an asphalt, crushed stone, or concrete sub base, and a top (wear) layer made or Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer or Thermal Plasc Vulcanized granules the come in different colors.

Poured-in-place Rubber Pros:

1. Stays in place.
3. Consistent impact-absorbing qualities.
4. Low maintenance costs.
5. Decomposes slowly.
6. Wheelchair accessible.
7. Easy to repair.
8. Slip-resistant. Traction even when wet.
9. Doesn't harden, brittle or crack.
10. Doesn't fade, discolor or chalk.

Poured-in-place Rubber Cons:

1. Initially expensive.
2. Required professional installation.
3. Flammable.
4. Quality concerns.
5. Can become hard over time, can curl on the edges, or expand, increasing a risk of tripping.
6. Must be regularly swept of debris or vacuum-cleaned to prevent compaction.
7. Loose debris such as sand, dirt, and small stones on top of unitary surfacing can reproduce slip hazards.
8. Fine particles can accumulate in porous openings, clog drainage features and be abrasive.
9. Sophisticated cleaning. Deposits and spills do not drain through the rubber surface. Ices and snow must be removed with Calcium Chloride, urine, vomit, nasal discharge with Borax or STPP solution. Soda and juice must be saturated first, and washed with liquid detergent.
10. Life expectancy - 10 years under average use.

Poured-in-place Rubber Maintenance

1. Regular inspection for damage and debris.
2. Regular removal of debris - vacuuming recommended, blowing, dry sweeping, and scrubbing - at least each 2-3 weeks.
3. Needs replacement if the impact-absorbing ability is lost.

Bonded Rubber or ATP (aliphatic thermoplastic monomer) rubberized unitary surface

Bonded rubber is similar to poured-in-place rubber surface in use and appearance, meets accessibility and safety standards, but it consists of chemically bonded rubber particles. Next, it is bonded to the recycled foam (ERF) to meet shock attenuation standards. The pros and cons of bonded rubber are similar to poured-in-place rubber, including high initial cost.

Rubber surfaces last ten years on average.

Artificial Grass for Playgrounds

Artificial grass combines the best of all. It looks like natural grass, non-slippery, color-safe, zero-maintenance surface, that can cover the area of any shape. Synthetic turf is safe, non-toxic and, installed with shock pads underneath, meets IPEMA safety requirements. Artificial grass is made of Polyethylene, Polypropylene, nylon, or its combination.

Artificial Grass Pros:

1. Easy to clean.
2. Stays in place.
3. Consistent impact-absorbing qualities.
4. No maintenance costs.
5. Wheelchair accessible.
6. Slip-resistant. Perfect drainage.
7. Doesn't harden, brittle or crack.
8. Doesn't fade or discolor.
9. Natural green appeal.
10. Saves water.
11. Liquids drain through quickly.
12. Look real, but no lawn care chemicals needed.
13. Does not contain harmful chemicals or lead.
14. Not flammable.
15. Resilient - can withstand heavy traffic.
16. Life expectancy - 15-20 years under average use.

Artificial Grass Cons:

1. Initial cost.
2 . Under a hot sun, certain types of grass can be hotter than real grass, but it's less hot compared to rubber tiles or rubber-in-place surfaces.
3. Placed close to highly reflective windows can melt.

Artificial Grass - No Maintenance.

1. Occasional raking to fluff up blades and remove debris.
2. If you have dogs, occasional hosing off helps to keep turf clean.

As you can see, there is no perfect surface for playgrounds. Every option has its set of benefits and drawbacks. Loose infills like sand, mulch, pea gravel and rubber crumbs, can prevent long bone injuries from falls, cost less, but they are not wheelchair accessible, not design friendly, go less safe in time and associated with higher maintenance efforts and costs. They can be swallowed, thrown around and get into children eyes and noses. They are also abrasive, and can easily hide dangerous objects.

More initially costly surfaces like rubber tiles, rubber-in-place, and bonded rubber offer access to children with disabilities, protect from fall injuries, and last up to 10, sometimes up to 15 years. They are colorful and vibrant, but from a design standpoint, their appeal is questionable. They do not fit parks designed with "natural settings" in mind. They are also not easy to clean since liquids and deposits like blood, juices, soda, urine, vomit, nasal discharge are visible on a top of a surface, and must be dissolved first with cleaning agents before it can be rinsed off with water. The cost is elevated by a need for professional installation. Another drawback is that you need professional maintenance to extend the life of the rubber surface. Patching hazardous holes and cuts, and adding coats of urethane, re-topping, is the only way to keep a rubber surface safe. If the surface becomes unserviceable, it must be ripped off and replaced.

Artificial grass seems to be the optimal solution for playgrounds due to its natural look, feel, shock attenuation impact, and accessibility. It doesn't heat up as much as rubber surfaces in the hot summer days, not inflammable compared to rubber, and comes in a variety of colors (from green to red, orange, and white), weights, and thicknesses. Synthetic turf is not affected by weather condition, including rain, floods or freezing temperatures. Ice and snow don't make the surface slippery like in a case of poured-in-place rubber, rubber tiles or bonded rubber. It does not get compacted in time, does not crack, doesn't move, and easy to install. It is attractive, requires zero maintenance, and doesn't need water to stay green and lush. The lifespan of artificial grass is longer (15-20 years) than a lifespan of rubber-in-place or rubber tiles (10 years). Plus, artificial grass does not require professional upkeep, which pays off quickly for an initial cost of turf.

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