It is the surfacing the makes or breaks an accessible playground. When designing a playground, you are faced with many options for surfacing, each has their own benefits. However, you only have a few choices if you want a truly usable playground for children of all abilities.
Here are the questions your playground committee needs to ask:
- What can we afford?
- Do we have the staff to conduct daily maintenance so we are ensured the surfacing is safe?
- How are we going to meet ADA?
- Do we want children of all abilities to be able to interact and play on the playground with their peers?
The first thing you must know is that you may NOT use asphalt, grass, concrete or soil as surfacing underneath a playground. These surfacing types do not meet safety guidelines.
There are two other general categories of surfacing: loose fill or synthetic material. All loose fill surfacing requires daily raking to maintain the required depth of the material that ensure the safety of children. They also require yearly replenishment.(sometimes much more often than yearly.) Often this type of maintenance does not occur creating unsafe playgrounds. In addition, loose fill is often tracked into buildings requiring additional maintenance indoors.
Pea gravel, sand and wood chips are loose-fill but do not meet ADA. However, you can use other surfacing to create paths to the entry point of the play equipment and it will enable your playground to meet the requirements.
The disadvantages of pea gravel is that you cannot use this material if your playground is higher than 6′. Also daycare providers have reported that peas gravel fits well in a nostril or an ear, which can result in a visit to the doctor or emergency room to remove.
Sand is one of the easiest products to maintain. You just need to level out the sand if it gets windswept. Children love to play in sand which is both a pro and a con. Cats can use the sand as a liter box. If a bottle get broken in the sand, it will be difficult to remove.
Wood Chips are different from Engineered Wood Fiber, which do meet ADA. Parents have reported they won’t go to playgrounds with wood chips or wood fiber because their children are too likely to put it in their mouths.
The loose-fill surfacing that meets ADA are Shredded Rubber and Engineered Wood Fiber. You do not need to use other surfacing to create paths. However, there is a difference between ADA regulations and a child using a wheelchair being able to play on the playground. It is extremely difficult if not impossible to push or wheel a wheelchair through either of these surfaces. Also parents who are raising children with autism have reported that their children put the loose in their mouths. They report that they will not go to a playground with loose fill for this reason.
The benefits to these two surfaces are in the cost. They meet ADA and are cost efficient. That is why these are the surfaces you see the most often. Cost of maintenance is high with these surfaces as was stated above, the playground should be raked daily and it will need to be replenished to maintain ADA complaince and safety.
The surfaces that are universally accessible and go beyond ADA to be actually usable for children with disabilities include Pour-in-Place, Rubber Tiles, and artificial grass with rubber underneath. The benefits to these surfaces besides the accessibility are the maintenance. You do not need to do daily maintenance to ensure that safety is maintained. There may be times you need to patch areas or sweep it off, but overall there is very little work to do be done.
The problem with these surfaces is the cost. They cost significantly more than loose filled surfacing; however they are your only true choice if you want all children to be able to play on your playground.
Artificial turf (visit http://www.playgroundgrass.com/ ). looks like real grass and therefore, fits seamlessly into your park. Because it acts like grass, you will often see parents sitting on it while a young child crawls around. I have not seen this with any other type of surfacing. For children who have difficulty making transitions, I have seen them sit in the grass for awhile and then slowly move to a ground level piece of equipment.
Because it is a little bouncy thanks to the loose rubber underneath, children feel safer and are willing to try something slightly outside of their comfort zone. If there is a lot of play traffic, the surface can become slightly unlevel with dips in the grass. If the dips are not too extreme, it can actually add to the benefits of the playground for a child with a disability. The adulations allow children to practice walking or wheeling in a natural setting enabling them to practice balancing. If the dips become extreme they must be fixed which can be time consuming and costly.