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Playground Surfacing
By: Heidi Ekstrom

Many churches today are searching for ways to build a sense of community among their members. And for the church's youngest members, where better to build community than on the church playground?

Playgrounds not only provide an important ground for children to build friendships, but they encourage an active and healthy lifestyle. Keeping kids safe during play is of the utmost concern, and arguably the most important component of playground safety is the safety surfacing.

When designing a church playground, or replacing your church's playground safety surfacing, it's easy to become overwhelmed with the plethora of options available. The questions and answers below should help you navigate the sometimes confusing world of playground safety surfacing.

How important is playground safety surfacing?
The answer is, extremely important. A study conducted by the National Program for Playground Safety found that 79 percent of all playground-related injuries occurred as a result of a child falling on improper or inadequate safety surfacing. Overall, approximately 200,000 children are injured each year as the result of playground falls.

How is the safety performance of a playground surface measured?
Each playground safety surface's performance should be evaluated for head impact protection by test called the ASTM F1292-04. This test measures the maximum fall height that a fall can occur onto the surface and still offer protection against death and critical brain injuries. The test generates a maximum fall height rating, which is determined by evaluating the numerical scores for Head Impact Criteria (HIC) and GMAX. The maximum fall height for the surface is determined when the HIC does not exceed 1,000 and the GMAX does not exceed 200.

What fall height protection should I look for in my safety surface?
Look for one that provides more head impact protection than your play equipment requires. If a surface is rated by the ASTM F1292-04 test to have a 12 foot fall height rating, a fall from 12 feet onto this surface would result in HIC scores near 1,000 and GMAX scores near 200. It's key to understand that the maximum fall height provided by the surface is near its failing point when new and under lab conditions. The lower the HIC and GMAX scores, the safer the surface is.

Brad Pittam, general manager of LTR Products, a company that manufactures playground surfacing, said, "The problem with these standards is that if a child falls unto a surface that has a 1,000 HIC, they still have a 2 percent risk of death and an 8 percent chance of a critical brain injury, meaning that the child has lost consciousness for 12 hours and has non-recoverable brain damage. This is not acceptable level of risk for our children."

Pittam goes on to say, "To avoid that potential risk, chose a surface whose fall height rating exceeds the fall height rating of your playground equipment. For instance, if your playground equipment has a fall height rating of 12 feet, choose a surface that has a 16 foot fall height rating. This will ensure that a child who falls from the top of the equipment won't be subject to such great a risk."

As a point of reference, a car that gets a "Poor" rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in a 40 MPH front offset collision has a HIC of 840 and a car with a "Good" rating will have a HIC of 560 or lower. This means you are safer in a front offset collision at 40 MPH than you are falling onto a playground surface with the maximum HIC value of 1,000.

What surfaces typically have the lowest HIC and GMAX scores?
Loose fill surfaces, such as rubber mulch and engineered wood fiber, typically have the lowest HIC and GMAX scores when installed and maintained properly. A unique surface that contains loose rubber in bags overlaid with a unitary surface has also been known to provide very low HIC and GMAX scores. When considering a surface, ask the manufacturer to provide you with the surface's detailed ASTM F1292 test results, not just the results page that shows its maximum fall height.

Are all playground safety surfaces safe year-round?
Unfortunately, not all safety surfaces are safe year-round. In areas of the country that see temperatures below freezing during the winter months, this is a particular concern.  Surfaces that are capable of freezing lose their head impact protection when frozen.  While most rubber surfaces will not freeze, engineered wood fiber surfaces often retain moisture and freeze during the winter months. When frozen, engineered wood fiber can have a HIC value of 1,800 at 6 foot fall height; this HIC value equates to a 10 percent chance of death.  If the safety surface is frozen, the playground should be closed to prevent serious injury or death.

Armed with this knowledge, you can be sure to choose a safety surface that meets your church's needs and keeps your children safe while building friendships that are vital to church community.

Heidi Ekstrom is the marketing specialist for LTR Products, www.ltrproducts.com.

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