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Safer ground: lots of options for play surfaces

In this undated photo released by Lowe’s, rubber mulch and a Swing N Slide play set is seen at an unknown location. Safety experts say using mulch or other approved surfaces under a play set can reduce injuries to children.
In this undated photo released by Lowe’s, rubber mulch and a Swing N Slide play set is seen at an unknown location. Safety experts say using mulch or other approved surfaces under a play set can reduce injuries to children.
Lowe’s, Associated Press

Joshua Barry knows that 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.

The key to avoiding injuries is adding surface materials that will cushion a fall, said Kate Carr, president of Safe Kids, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to preventing childhood injuries.

Asphalt and concrete are too hard, as are grass and turf, Nazario said, since normal wear and tear destroys their quality and absorption properties.

Good options include rubber mulch, wood mulch, sand, fine gravel or safety-tested rubber mat, which are more forgiving than grass and dirt are when a child falls, Nazario said.

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.

"It holds its color," he said. "It doesn't wash away. It doesn't decompose."

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.

Play set safety tips:

—Place the equipment at least 6 feet in all directions away from obstructions such as fences, buildings, trees, electric wires or laundry lines. Keep as far away as possible from streets and driveways. Consider erecting a fence between the equipment and traffic.

—Maintain equipment properly, following manufacturer's guidelines. Check often to make sure bolts are tightly anchored, and cut off or cap protruding bolt ends, which can cause cuts or catch on clothing. Caps or nuts should be flush with the surface, with no gaps or spaces that could create a hook.

—Inspect wood equipment for splinters and cracks. It's also a good idea to round off edges of wood with a sander. Sand it and apply a wood sealer according to the manufacturer's recommendations. Make sure hooks and chains on swings aren't worn or too rusty.

—Don't allow a free-swinging rope on equipment or trees. Loose ropes can form a loop or noose and strangle a child. Ropes that are securely anchored to the ground are OK as long as they aren't frayed.

____Source: Akron (Ohio) Children's Hospital