Danette Stovall knows wipeouts are inevitable when children are climbing and sliding on outdoor play sets. So she asked for mulch to be placed under and around the climbing toys she had installed in the backyard of her Daniel Island home for her daughter Juliette, 3, last spring.
“We chose mulch because it adds extra protection from falls,” she says. “Our house is on the water, and the backyard is very natural. It’s good with bugs, and the chips will stay fresh for years.”
She is right. Safety experts say it’s important to address the area around a swing set or climbing equipment.
Unintentional injury is the No. 1 killer of children ages 1-14 in the U.S., says Maudra Rogers, injury prevention coordinator/Safe Kids coordinator at the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital.
“Falls are the most common mode of playground injury, accounting for over 75 percent of all playground-related injuries,” she says.
Two ways to avoid injuries are to decrease the height of playground equipment and to use protective surfaces on the playground. Surface materials such as shredded rubber, wood chips, wood fiber, synthetic grass and sand absorb energy and can reduce injuries related to falls, Rogers says.
Good options include wood carpet, certified mulch or loose fill rubber, says Mary Wakefield Barnes, owner of Wakefield Recreation, a local commercial company specializing in installing and maintaining school, park and neighborhood playgrounds. The company has installed hundreds of commercial and residential playgrounds.
She says bonded or poured rubber, which is the most expensive, is best and has the highest impact absorption, lasts the longest and requires the least maintenance.
She doesn’t recommend using sand or pea gravel, which are both inexpensive but offer less impact absorption.
How deep you should lay the ground material depends on the height of the tallest deck or play item and surfacing type used, Wakefield Barnes says.
The U.S. Product Safety Commission recommends using at least 9 inches of mulch or shredded rubber for equipment up to 7 feet high. For sand or pea gravel, the commission recommends at least a 9-inch layer for equipment up to 5 feet.
“The surfacing manufacturer will provide specifications and depth needed,” Wakefield Barnes says. “Residential playgrounds do not have guidelines from the U.S. Product Safety Commission or American Society for Testing and Materials, but any worthwhile product will follow commercial standards and use International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association-certified components.” Parents usually can tell a quality product by the warranty and certifications, she says.
Installing a weed-protection barrier can be done first but isn’t necessary, she says.
“If surfacing is used, it normally kills grass and weeds underneath it. Always avoid chemicals if possible.”
It’s important that parents avoid buying play sets that don’t meet or exceed safety guidelines by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and ASTM (also look for IPEMA certifications), are built of cheap or toxic material or aren’t sturdy and secure.
Melissa Kossler Dutton of The Associated Press contributed to this story.