The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends adding a surface such as rubber underneath all playground equipment, at home and public playgrounds, for safety and injury prevention. In fact, more than 200,000 children visit the emergency room each year because of falls from playground equipment, and many of those injuries are due to falling on dirt or grass. Like any type of surface, rubber offers both benefits and drawbacks.
The greatest benefit to a rubber playground surface is that it is shock-absorbing and softer than other types of surfacing, such as sand, bark mulch or pea gravel. When children fall – or jump -- off the equipment, they are less likely to be injured landing on a rubber surface. The Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency have both conducted independent tests concluding that rubber mulch is the safest surface for all playgrounds. A solid rubber surface is also safe, but because it does not displace the way that mulch does, it can lead to some injuries.
Playgrounds that are surrounded by a solid rubber surface are not only safer than other types, but are also more likely to be compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. When properly installed, a rubber surface is smooth and level, making it ideal for wheelchair access. Rubber surfaces also dry quickly and are less likely to attract pests and animals than other types of playground surfaces. Playground sand tends to attract animals that may use the sand as a giant litter box, increasing the chances of disease and infection.
Rubber Mulch Drawbacks
There are some drawbacks to using rubber mulch as a playground surface. While some rubber mulch is made from recycled tires, other mulch is a manufactured product. Manufactured products may be more susceptible to bacteria or fungus. Recycled rubber that is not carefully cleaned may contain pieces of wire that are dangerous to children, and if the mulch pieces are too small, they could present a choking hazard. Rubber mulch that’s not properly installed and carefully maintained is also a hazard. The CPSC recommends that the mulch be at least 9 inches deep for equipment that is 7 feet high; it should extend for at least 6 feet around the equipment. Over time and with use, the mulch can develop thin spots that need to be filled in to provide adequate protection.
Solid Rubber Surface Drawbacks
Rubber surfaces other than mulch also have drawbacks. Rubber surfaces are usually either poured in place or installed as tiles. Tiled rubber surfaces can come loose and present tripping hazards, and bacteria, mold and fungus can grow in between tiles and on the underside. Poured in place surfaces are susceptible to wear, cracking, peeling and fading over time. If the surface is damaged, it can breed harmful bacteria. Solid surfaces also tend to be more expensive than other types, as they require professional installation.
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