Playground surfaces not all equal

The surface children fall onto in playgrounds makes a big difference to their safety.
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 
  • Updated:4 Jan 2007
 

01 .Introduction

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In brief

  • A good playground surface absorbs the energy of a child’s fall.
  • Bark mulch that is less than 20cm deep won’t do this well and inferior rubber surfaces can make injuries worse.
  • Playground safety standards should be made mandatory in schools and Councils just as it is in some childcare facilities.

The last thing anyone wants is for playgrounds to be boring. Children need to learn to test themselves and take risks, but they need to do so within an environment that is free from hazards they can’t see. Having an appropriate landing surface that is well maintained significantly lowers the risk of injury should children fall.

Fractures on the rise

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

The bad news is, fractures, particularly to the shoulder, wrist, forearm and elbow are up and have increased by 20% over the last decade, with those aged 5–9 years most affected.

Playground surfaces partly to blame

While overcrowding, lack of adult supervision and more ‘boring’ equipment that children misuse have been blamed, the biggest culprit remains playground design. For starters, random checks have shown as little as 5% of playgrounds comply with the (voluntary) safety Standards for playground surfacing.

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.

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 softfall materials need to be for safety.
  • If the surface is rubber, be prepared to call your school or council and ask some hard questions about its tested safety.
 
 

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02.Surface materials

 

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’s two things they should all have in common:

  1. They comply with the Australian/New Zealand Playground Surfacing Standard AS/NZS 4422:1996 Playground surfacing – Specifications, requirements and test method.
  2. 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 tables shows the pros and cons of the different surface materials which are available.

Surface material comparison
Bark softfall (composted lignin mulch)
Advantages
  • Low initial cost
  • Spreads easily
  • Easy to install
  • Readily available
Disadvantages
  • Easily displaced
  • Needs weekly maintenance and a top up at least four times a year
  • Impact absorption weakened if depth inadequate, wet, freezes or combines with dirt
  • Conceals hazardous objects (broken bottles, syringes)
  • Not suitable for wheelchair access
Traps
  • Watch out for timber-based products with sharp edges or product so fine it can be inhaled.
  • Be sure to install to the suggested minimum depth of 40cm.
Impact absorbing sand
Advantages
  • Low initial cost
  • Doesn’t deteriorate readily with usage
  • Easy to install
  • Readily available
Disadvantages
  • Combines with dirt or may compact
  • Conceals hazardous objects (broken bottles, syringes)
  • Conceals animal faeces
  • Attractive to animals
  • 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
Advantages
  • Durable, low maintenance
  • Water permeable surface
  • Environmentally friendly as uses waste product
  • Suitable for wheelchair access
Disadvantages
  • Can be expensive to install
  • Can get very hot in summer
  • Bounce can compound injuries
  • Can be slippery when wet
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
Advantages
  • Durable, low maintenance
  • Water permeable surface
  • Suitable for wheelchair access
  • Can be installed over concrete, asphalt or other hard surfaces
Disadvantages
  • Extremely expensive
  • Often needs a level site
  • 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.
 

Bounce is bad

The big problem with rubber is it induces bounce. And when it comes to injury, bounce is bad as children can rebound several times on the injured part, exacerbating an injury.

There is a rubber product from a company in Queensland, A1 Rubber, that overcomes this problem with the insertion of polystyrene foam embedded in the rubber product. If you’re installing a playground they’re worth seeking out. But unfortunately as a parent, there is no way of visually recognising a rubber playground surface with this protective property.

03.Installation and maintenance

 

Installation

Like a building, a playground needs a good foundation. The Australian standard specifies requirements for:

  • drainage
  • depth of fill
  • the removal of pre-existing hazards like tree roots

The other hazard, particularly for poured rubber products, is the product may have been incorrectly mixed, or not poured to the required depth or affected by weather conditions. The only way this can be checked is to bring in some engineers with a testing rig, something Councils and schools are currently not required to do.

Maintenance

It’s no use having a perfectly installed playground surface, particularly of the high-maintenance bark mulch or sand variety, if it’s not regularly maintained. For sand or bark softfall, 20cm is minimum safe surface depth and ideally 30cm 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.

Mandatory standards needed

Injury rates in playgrounds in the UK are seven times less than in Australia. This is despite their play equipment being higher than in Australia. What’s the difference? Unlike here, where playground Standards are voluntary , Workcover legislation is applied to playgrounds in the UK. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has also been running highly successful courses for local Councils on playground design and maintenance that are specifically focussed on what exactly causes injury and trains Councils to use their limited resources in smart ways.

The good news is, in Australia similar courses are becoming available. But while courts have found against Councils for child injury when playground surfaces aren’t maintained, until there is a stronger legislative requirement on playground compliance, the uptake on this education is unlikely to be universal.

Getting a playground right

Princes Park playground Princes Park, Battery Point, Hobart City Council

When the Hobart City Council decided to replace its playground at Battery Point they were determined to maintain an adventurous feel around a maritime theme. So popular elements from the previous playground, like a long slide were integrated into a new ‘adventure ship’, while nets and pommel climbers were installed lower for younger children.

Coarse granite-based river sand with minimal small fragments was chosen as the playground surface because it’s cheap, long lasting and easy to maintain. It’s also easy to clean with daily raking and doesn’t cling to clothes or need as much topping up as bark. Sand was in keeping with the nautical theme of the equipment and in harmony with the historical site. To confirm that the sand surface complied with the safety standards the Council brought in an engineer to test it onsite (the image, right, shows the test rig set up in the playground). The surface passing with flying colours.

A second test of the surface was conducted approximately three months later. While the sand still met the Standard, the test showed the impact absorbing properties had deteriorated slightly. To ensure the playground continues to be maintained in accordance with the safety Standard the Hobart City Council now turns the sand over regularly with a rotary hoe. This prevents the sand from compacting, reducing the likelihood and/or severity of an injury should a child fall.

Bailey spends summer in a wheelchair after playground fracture

Bailey Knowles, 5, had been happily playing on the monkey bars at school at playtime when he slipped off and hit the woodchip-covered ground. Landing awkwardly on his feet the result was a broken left leg with a spiral fracture to the tibia. For his leg to be straightened and set into a full leg cast he required an operation under a general anaesthetic and had an overnight stay in hospital.

According to his orthopaedic surgeon Dr Ivan Astori, the first cast will stay on for six weeks with weekly x-rays for 3 weeks. Provided the healing has been successful a second will be fitted for another three. Bailey will also be unable to play high impact sport for another four months after that and because he’s too young for crutches, his is confined to a wheelchair for the summer.

The school for its part immediately fenced off the monkey bar area from use by other children until its safety could be checked.