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WHICH PLAYGROUND SURFACE IS THE SAFEST?

Written by on August 1st, 2020.      0 comments

 
Thanks to improved safety standards (particularly the removal of unsafe playground equipment and a reduction in the height of structures) playgrounds today are safer and injury rates for the most catastrophic head injuries have significantly declined.

Unfortunately, not all is going well. The bad news is that fractures - particularly to the shoulder, wrist, forearm and elbow - are up, with those aged five to nine years most affected.

While overcrowding, lack of adult supervision and more "boring" equipment that children misuse have been blamed, the biggest culprit remains playground design. But the surprise is that it's not just about what children are falling from – mostly monkey bars – but what they're falling onto. That is, children are mostly injured when they fall from play equipment onto a hard surface.

Surface materials
Having a well maintained, appropriate playground surface significantly lowers the risk of injury when kids take a tumble. But how do you know which playground surface will be safe, and which one may contribute to a broken bone or worse? 

In order to be safe, the surface under all playground equipment should be soft. The variety of playground impact absorbing surface materials each have a distinct list of strengths and weaknesses but there are two things they should all have in common:
  • They comply with the NZS5828:2015 standard.
  • They absorb the energy of a child's fall over a long period of time and over a great distance. That is, the child sinks into the surface and doesn't rebound.
The following list contains the pros and cons of the different surface materials available.

Bark (Large pine bark nuggets)
Pros
  • Low initial cost
  • Spreads easily
  • Easy to install
  • Readily available
  • *Certified (Confirm your provider)
  • Resouceful - no waste produced
Cons
  • Easily displaced
  • Needs some maintenance and a top-up annually
  • Impact absorption weakened if too shallow, wet, frozen or combined with dirt
  • Not all barks are the same, some may not be certified
  • Poor quality barks may conceal hazardous objects (eg. broken glass, syringes)
  • Not suitable for wheelchair access
Traps
  • Must be installed to the suggested minimum depth which is dependant on height of playground equipment

Impact-absorbing sand
Pros
  • Low initial cost
  • Doesn't deteriorate readily with usage
  • Easy to install
  • Readily available
Cons
  • Combines with dirt; may compact
  • May conceal hazardous objects (eg. broken glass, syringes)
  • May conceal animal faeces
  • Attractive to animals
  • Tracking
  • Highly likely not to be certified
  • Expensive to transport
  • Easily displaced
  • Not suitable for wheelchair access
Traps
  • Not all sand is good sand. Some sand types compact to concrete-like hardness. It must be impact-absorbing, suitable for playgrounds.
  • Be sure to install to the suggested minimum depth of 40cm.

Wet pour rubber (AKA soft-fall rubber)
Pros
  • Durable, low maintenance
  • Water-permeable surface
  • Environmentally friendly, as uses waste product
  • Suitable for wheelchair access 
Cons
  • Expensive to install
  • Can get very hot in summer
  • Bounce can compound injuries
  • Can be slippery when wet
  • Contraction during warm and cool periods may mean the surface splits and significantly reduces lifespan
  • Can't be recycled
Traps
  • A visual inspection cannot tell you a good rubberised surface from a poor one. Only certified testing can, so contact your school or council for information on their compliance testing if you are unsure.

Rubber tiles and pavers
Pros
  • Durable, low-maintenance
  • Water-permeable surface
  • Suitable for wheelchair access
  • Can be installed over concrete, asphalt or other hard surfaces 
Cons
  • Extremely expensive
  • Often needs a level site
  • Impacts or bounce can compound injuries
  • Can be slippery when wet
Traps
  • Curling tiles can be a trip hazard.
  • A visual inspection cannot tell you a good rubberised surface from a poor one. Only certified testing can, so contact your school or council for information on their compliance testing if you are unsure.

Maintenance

Sand or bark soft-fall, 30cm is minimum safe surface depth and ideally at least 40cm should be maintained at all times. In popular playground spaces this means bark particularly should be raked on a weekly basis and topped up at least quarterly. Although artificial surfaces require less maintenance, when it is required it is generally a large capital outlay to replace or high maintenance cost of maintenance when compared to loose impact protection medias.

Protect your kids
If you're putting a playground in at home:
  • Take care getting the foundation right.
  • Select a material you can and will maintain.
  • Ensure you lay the material deep enough.
If you're taking your child to the local playground:
  • Be aware of how deep soft-fall materials need to be for safety.
  • If the surface is rubber and looks deteriotated or if its a loose media and looks 'composted' consider contacting the people responsible for maintaining and letting them know so there isn't a risk to kids safety in the future.
 

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At Wholesale Landscapes, we supply a wide range of landscaping products that are aged and blended to ensure the absolute highest quality. We deliver commercial quantities of bark-based landscape supplies to resellers and projects across NZ. We have a trade yard in Stoke, Nelson where landscapers and contractors can conveniently pick up bulk landscape supplies - all year round.

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