Joshua Barry knows wipeouts are inevitable when children are climbing and sliding on outdoor play sets. So he placed shredded rubber under and around the climbing toys his two children use in the backyard of their Aurora, Ohio, home.
“It gives me peace of mind knowing there’s a little bit of cushioning,” he said.
Safety experts say it’s important to address the area around a swing set or climbing equipment.
“Each year, hundreds of thousands of children are treated in emergency rooms for playground injuries, and these are preventable,” said Dr. Brunilda Nazario, senior medical editor at WebMD, a health information website.
An important factor in playground safety is surface material and how much cushioning it has.
Good options include rubber mulch, wood mulch, sand, fine gravel or safety-tested rubber mats, which are more forgiving than grass and dirt are when a child falls, Nazario said.
Asphalt and concrete are too hard.
So are grass and turf since normal wear and tear destroys their quality and absorption properties.
Joel Kendrick, director of Tuscumbia Parks and Recreation Department, said the department uses wood mulch that has been softened for use in the city’s public playgrounds.
“It’s run through the hammer mill that actually softens and breaks down the mulch so it’s not splintery,” Kendrick said. “It’s rated for playgrounds and within the fall zone; we try to maintain it around 12 inches.”
How deep you should lay the ground material depends on what you use and how high the play equipment is.
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.
Mulch — either wood or rubber — is a better choice than sand or gravel because it provides more shock absorption, said Rick Jess, vice president of merchandising for lawn and gardening at Lowe’s headquarters in Mooresville, N.C.
Wood mulch is less expensive than rubber, but it decomposes and fades and has to be added to each year, he said. Rubber mulch, which is increasingly popular, lasts much longer. It also is more than double the price of traditional mulch, he said.
Brian Balch, the owner of Green Guys Lawn Care in Killen, added that if you decide to remove your play set, then you have to deal with the rubber mulch in some way, where as wood mulch decays naturally.
“Overall it’s expensive up front,” said Balch. “But if you look at a 10-year span of how much hardwood mulch you would be putting in and the cost of replenishing that every year after 10 years the rubber mulch will pay for itself.”
Balch said he put in rubber mulch about two years ago for his 4-year-old daughter’s play set.
“Our oldest has had several falls out there on the playground and she came out there unhurt,” Balch said. “It’s a lot softer; if it had been bare ground then she would have been hurt a lot more than she was.”
Rick Canup, director of parks and recreation in Sheffield, said their department gets free woodchips from the utility department as they cut down trees.
“Because it’s free, and the utility department is actually trying to get rid of these chips we keep them replenished all the time,” Canup said. “It’s really easy if it’s not built up around the foundation of course they’ll wash out. And from putting your feet in them as you’re pushing them off to swing it just kind of wears out the spots.”
Kendrick added they had used rubber mulch at one location in Tuscumbia but had gotten complaints from people with latex allergies.
“I had looked at rubber mulch, and it’s like all of them, they have their benefits and they have their drawbacks,” he said. “Some of the drawbacks of rubber that caused us not to go with it, was that it is possible for the rubber to catch on fire if somebody is smoking or whatever is happening. Also if someone has an allergy.”
Although cheaper than mulch, sand and pea gravel have become less popular surfaces for backyard play sets because they don’t stay put as well, added Ace Hardware’s Lou Manfredini in Chicago.
“With sand and pea gravel, it’s a mess issue. Sand moves around the yard quite a bit and can even get tracked into the house on kids’ shoes,” said the Ace Home Expert. “Rubber mulch has gotten quite popular over the last 10 years. It tends to look good longer.”
Regardless of what surface parents choose, Manfredini suggests first installing a weed protection barrier — a durable fabric that prevent weeds from growing up through the ground cover. He recommends against using weed killers near play sets.
Parents also should carefully choose the location of their set, Nazario said. She recommends shady areas where the ground is level and there are no low-hanging branches or wires.
TimesDaily staff writer Bobby Bozeman contributed to this report.