Study analyzes playground surface safety



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April Strasler plays with her daughter, Clementine, Monday evening at Bryan Park. Glory Sheeley Buy Photos

The ability of a disabled child to enjoy a playground is directly affected by the ground surface on which he or she is playing, a recent IU study shows.

Results from a five-year study analyzing the accessibility and safety measurements of playground surfaces were released last week by the National Center on Accessibility, part of the Department of Park, Recreation and Tourism Studies at IU.

The study, which reviewed surfaces from more than 35 parks in Indiana and Chicago, focused on the play requirements and safety concerns of those with disabilities, according to a press release.

Principal investigator Jennifer Skulski said when playground surfaces lack proper maintenance and upkeep, it can limit children’s access.

“If a surface is installed incorrectly, it can crack and cause changes in the level of the material,” Skulski said. “Those imperfections can make it difficult for a person in a wheelchair or crutches, for example, to enjoy themselves.”

The United States Access Board, a federal agency that enacts facility accessibility guidelines, awarded the National Center on Accessibility $60,000 to complete the study.

The results of the study prompted new safety regulations as soon as the first-year results were published, Skulski said.

“There was no standard instruction guide to the installation of playground surfaces until after our first-year findings were published,” Skulski said. “But, after publication, the International Play Equipment Manufactures Association announced standardized guidelines pertaining to the correct installation of surfaces and equipment.”

The study analyzed seven different playground surfaces. The most common surface used was poured-in-place rubber, followed by engineered wood fiber.

“The mulch people see in playgrounds isn’t actually mulch at all,” Skulski said. “It is actually a processed wood fiber that is designed to form together into a sheet as it is walked over.”

The study determined that the safest playground surface in use today is the hybrid surface. The hybrid system consists of a foam mat covered with either an outdoor carpet or a synthetic turf.

The Sophia Travis playscape, a playground located in the Karst Farm Park across the street from the Monroe County Convention Center, has a hybrid surface, said Kelli Witmer, associate director of the Monroe County Parks and Recreation Department.

“We have seen very good results from the hybrid surface at the Sophia Travis playscape,” Witmer said. “In fact, we have seen such positive results that we have decided to use the hybrid surface in a second park.”

Though the hybrid surface is the most expensive option, Skulski stressed that playground owners can use the study to find safe alternatives within their budget.

“It is kind of like buying a used car,” Skulski said. “You consider all of your options and your budget and then make an informed decision.”

Skulski said she hopes the results of the study are used to encourage playground owners to make informed decisions about their playground surfaces.

“We are here to help facilitate an inclusive environment,” Skulski said. “I want to stress the importance of play, and I hope this study allows more children the opportunity to participate.”  

Follow reporter Grayson Harbour on Twitter @GraysonHarbour

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