I’m always surprised, when talking to recreation managers and buyers about surfacing, to hear them say, “it’s expensive, and doesn't really add any play or fun to the site, but it’s something we have to do.” There’s good news; surfacing can actually be very playful, and new technology and formulations are adding to that ability.
Playground surfacing has come a long way from the “afterthought” of the early 20th century when it was primarily made of sand, screened cinders, clay, or a combination of the above, when and if it was used at all. By the 1940s the choice had migrated to asphalt, as a preventative measure against sharp protruding rocks or dust, and as early as the 1950s Goodyear® had created a pelletized rubber, which may not have provided adequate fall attenuation, but set the stage for the future of playground surfacing. During the 1970s-1980s much research took place, leading to the safety standards for playground surfacing maintained by ASTM and CPSC today.
While safety is certainly the primary reason for installing adequate playground surfacing, this doesn't mean it has to be boring! Today there are many choices that offer fall protection that is compliant with modern standards, both loose fill (made up of lots of loose pieces, which together form the protective surface) or unitary (one solid surface), across a variety of aesthetic and playful effects. As a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I remember the smell of wood fiber surfacing made of cedar, and the delightful scent it would have as we ran across its surface. (To this day the smell of cedar reminds me of play!) Wood fiber is one of the most cost conscious options available; it looks great in nature focused play areas, and also makes a great compliment to other surfaces when mixed. When unitary surfaces are used, wood fiber can act as a complement and help curb cost. If you use two types of surfacing, be sure to provide a smooth transition between distinct surfaces so mobility devices can easily maneuver between spaces, and ensure that all the surfacing you choose meets current guidelines for accessibility. Wood fiber also offers the opportunity for loose parts play, and observations of children at play have shown children using the pieces as imaginary currency, goods to be bartered, and even pirate treasure.
Playground surfacing tiles also offer many ways to add play value. Two colors of tile can be utilized to create game boards like checkers, four square, or hopscotch. Many colors can be used to create a variety of geometric patterns, pathways, or color bursts to add fun. Colors can also be used to visually organize a play space so that it makes sense to the users who play there. Differently colored surfaces can help delineate play areas by age group, or provide cues and contrast to high traffic areas like swings and slide exits to remind users to proceed with caution. Color can also prompt children to invent games and use the play surfacing in a variety of new and thoughtful ways.
Poured rubber offers even more options for color play, as the design isn’t limited to a linear geometric design. Surfacing can be themed to compliment the theme of a play structure, or to create a theme in and of itself. Surfacing “murals” can make the space truly unique, and can transform a playground into a sports field, undersea world, outer space, or anything you can imagine. Themes promote dramatic play, outdoor games, and imagination, and can be used to promote learning through the incorporation of numbers, maps, animal prints, nature elements, or other themes. School colors or mascots can be included to promote school spirit. At an installation in the Orlando, Florida area, a game was incorporated into a pathway so children could roll dice and move forward the correct number of spaces along the game path. The possibilities are endless!
Another fascinating technology that can be incorporated into the playground surface is sound. Sound chips can be embedded into unitary surfaces to create a whole new way to play and learn. Silly noises, fun facts, themed sounds, or educational lessons are just a few of the sounds that can be used. Sound chips can be programmed to offer a variety of sounds, so that one sound chip offers a wide variety of fun, and makes play more suspenseful and unpredictable. Sound elements can be incorporated into graphics, like creating musical instruments that are played by the body, drum noises into a drum design, or piano notes into piano keys. The sound chips can be embedded under an obvious visual cue, or interspersed throughout the play area to be discovered by accident. Imagine planet graphics interspersed throughout the play area, coupled with a sound chip that would offer a variety of facts about each respective planet when it was stepped on. What fun would it be to create a “virtual” geocaching game on the playground, where coordinates had to be mapped, and when found and trod upon, the next clue would issue from the surface. Think about the possibilities when concepts of history, math, science, and geography are included in fun sound bites that create fun, active movement, and learning opportunities!
In addition to loose parts, color, and sound, textural elements can be created with surfacing. Children love to roll down hills, and surfacing berms can be created to offer this play experience in a colorful way. Creating hills of differing sizes can offer open ended play opportunities for children to play, as well as facilitate learning through loose parts play as children roll objects down the hill and discover how differently sized objects react. Rubber surfaced berms can be created through excavation or by adding compacted material to build the terrain needed. This effect can also be created using playground turf for a more natural look, and can incorporate additional elements of play like slides and climbers. Hillside slides are especially useful for children who are uncomfortable with heights, because they can be provided with a fast sliding experience, but are never very far off the ground since the slide bedway rests on the slope.
One tool that can be very helpful in discovering the many ways surfacing can be used is the guidebook Strong Foundations: Planning, Purchasing, and Protecting Playground Surfacing Investments. Strong Foundations explores the many options in playground surfacing, and provides valuable tools to help playground owners increase the play value and functionality of their play space. Besides covering the play value aspect of surfacing, the guidebook also explores:
- Surfacing standards
- Types of surfacing
- Planning, purchasing, and protecting
- Budget planning
- Installation and maintenance
- Inspection checklist
Strong Foundations is a great way to learn more about the play value of surfacing and how to incorporate the many available options to create a fun playful environment. To obtain a copy, log on to http://www.gametime.com/resources/educational-programs/strong-foundations/ and remember, playground surfacing can be as much fun as the equipment itself, once you are aware of all the possibilities!