More than 70 percent of all injuries1 that occur on the playground involve falls, and the majority of those injuries involve children falling onto unsafe surfaces. It is critical to understand the role that adequate and appropriate surfacing materials play in the prevention of injuries. Of equal importance, however, is an understanding of the role that equipment height plays not only in injury prevention but in providing challenging stimulation at minimal risk of injury.
Here are four steps to ensure fall surfacing protection:
Step 1: Select Appropriate Materials
The first step in creating a safe surface under and around playground equipment is to select appropriate surfacing materials. Inappropriate surfacing materials include asphalt, cement, dirt, and concrete. Appropriate material examples include loose-fill material (wood products, sand, pea gravel, and crumb rubber) and unitary surface material (rubber tile, poured-in-place, and other artificial surfaces).
Equipment height influences the ability of a surface to provide protection in the event of a child’s fall. Research has shown equipment more than 5 feet high more than doubles the probability of injury.2,3 The height of the equipment can also limit what type of playground surfacing material is used. For instance, different materials provide protection to different maximum fall heights.
The third step is to evaluate the thickness of the loose-fill surface material. The required depth of loose-fill surfacing depends on both the surface material used and the potential fall height of installed equipment, so it is not possible to offer a simple recommendation; however, the CPSC Handbook for Public Playground Safety offers several guidelines based on material and fall height. The maintenance of any playground surface is critical part of keeping children safe. Without proper maintenance, shock absorbency will decrease. In fact, a poorly maintained surface may be more dangerous than no surface at all.
Step 4: Use Zones
The final step involves the layout of the surfacing under and around playground equipment, in areas which are defined as the “use zone.” There are different types of use zone layouts for various types of playground equipment.
1. Hanway, S., Motabar, L. (2016) Injuries Associated with Playground Equipment 2009-2014. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
2. Phelan K, Khoury J, Halkwarf H, et al. (2001) Trends and patterns of playground injuries in United States children and adolescents. Ambulatory Pediatrics 1: 227-233.
3. Vollman D, Witsaman R, Comstock R. (2009) Epidemiology of playground equipment-related injuries to children in the United States, 1996-2005. Clinical Pediatrics 48: 66-71.