Play is an essential part of a child’s development. All children need access to play, regardless of ability. In order to provide enriching experiences to all the children they serve, playgrounds in the United States need to meet safety standards and guidelines for accessibility as outlined in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). These standards provide welcome guidance for the design and construction of a playground.
ADA guidelines for accessible playgrounds encompass multiple aspects of the play area, including equipment and routes to access it. Though it may seem like a small detail in comparison, good surfacing is one of the most important parts of creating a safe and accessible playground.
What Is Accessible Surfacing?
Surfacing is the material used around playground equipment to provide protection in case of falls, slips and other accidents. Though many types of surfacing exist, only some types are considered accessible.
In order to comply with the ADA, playground surfacing typically needs to be firm and stable enough for a child in a wheelchair or using a mobility aid to move across the surface easily. Examples of surfacing materials that meet federal ADA standards include:
- Engineered wood fiber (EWF) that meets ASTM F2075 standard
- Unitary rubber surfacing such as poured in place rubber and rubber tiles
- Synthetic turf
Though a playground need not be surfaced by entirely ADA-approved materials, it needs these materials to create required accessible routes to play equipment as well as the routes connecting exit and entrances to the accessible equipment.
Though both solid surfacing and loose-fill surfacing materials like engineered wood fiber (EWF) fulfill ADA requirements on a federal scale, there remains some confusion about what is and is not an accessible material for playground surfacing. In Massachusetts, for example, proposed changes to CMR 521 would further limit the accepted types of playground surfacing in the state to solid — not loose-fill or aggregate — surfaces only in areas where access is required.
Let’s take a look at the proposed playground regulations in Massachusetts and try to dispel some of the confusion about accessible surfacing.
What Do Massachusetts Playground Guidelines Say About Surfacing?
In addition to providing other guidelines on playground accessibility, the proposed changes to state regulations offer updated rules for the surfacing of use zones, accessible routes and turning spaces within play areas.
If these changes were to be accepted, Section 59.4.1 would require that, in addition to meeting general safety standards like impact attenuation requirements, these surfaces must be made of resilient rubber surfacing, urethane rubber composites or a similar material that is not loose-fill or aggregate. This would mean loose-fill playground surfacing could no longer be used to fulfill accessibility requirements.
Is All Loose-Fill Surfacing Inaccessible?
Loose-fill surfacing is defined as a surfacing material that sits loosely in the ground, usually without binders or chemicals holding the pieces in place. Examples of loose-fill materials include sand, pea gravel, shredded rubber and EWF.
The proposed Massachusetts playground safety and accessibility standards are correct to assert that not all loose-fill surfacing is suitable for accessible playground routes. Pea gravel and sand, for example, aren’t firm or stable enough to provide a safe pathway for a child with a mobility aid. Likewise, fill made using large pieces of bark or wood chips cannot meet ADA requirements because the pieces can’t compress enough to provide stable ground.
With that said, not all loose-fill surfacing is inaccessible. Engineered wood fiber (EWF), while technically a loose-fill material, meets ADA playground standards when installed properly. EWF makes for a more accessible surface because its fibers interlock to provide stability. There is an ASTM standard that specifically spells out what EWF should look like in consistency and to make sure it is tramp metal (nails, staples, etc) and hazardous metals free. (Ex.-Lead, Mercury and Arsenic). That standard is ASTM F2075. Ask for test results before purchasing it from your supplier.
How Does EWF Fit Into the Proposed Standards?
It’s somewhat unclear how Massachusetts would treat ADA-compliant EWF under the proposed regulation changes for playground fall zone requirements. However, the new guidelines would certainly impact how designers and owners work to provide equal playground access in the state. Since the changes were proposed and public comments were received, there have been no additional updates on timeline for the proposed changes to 521 CMR. The MA Access Board is awaiting approval to reconvene their Subcommittee on Regulation to address the comments they received this past spring 2019 and unfortunately they do not have an estimate on when said approval will be given if at all.
Currently, three-quarters of all playgrounds in the U.S. use EWF as a surfacing material. It’s more popular than other ADA-compliant materials because it’s less expensive and easier to install. In comparison to unitary surfaces, loose-fill EWF requires a lower initial investment and can be properly installed and maintained by non-professionals.
EWF also provides excellent fall impact absorption, slip-resistance and firmness. Because many school districts and municipalities have limited budgets to spend on playground construction and maintenance, they often choose EWF to provide accessibility without sacrificing their entire budget for surfacing.
Under Massachusetts school playground regulations, EWF would no longer suffice as a material for accessible surfacing because of its loose-fill nature and composition. If you’re planning a playground in Massachusetts, it’s important to consider how this change could affect your plans. Ask yourself, will my play area still have accessible pathways after these changes? Will these changes affect how I use my budget?
With that in mind, Zeager has been making strides in developing access pathway systems that can make ADA upgrades more affordable while reducing maintenance! One playground in particular was just installed this past summer in Westford, MA using some newly improved products to increase the accessibility of the Engineered Wood Fiber playground surface. This surface is under a trail period and will be accessed for 2 years and if it is deemed compliant with the requirements set by the Board, it will be accepted for use in the state of MA. In the meantime Zeager intends on installing more of these cost saving surfacing products in other states across the US and Canada. (Link to new video on website: Adding Access to EWF)
If you need help choosing surfacing that meets the current ADA guidelines in Massachusetts or other states, Zeager Bros., Inc. can offer assistance.
Our Dedication to Playground Accessibility
Every child deserves access to the enriching experience of a playground. The ability to safely play with peers on and around playground equipment allows children with disabilities to socialize, use their imaginations and gain the outdoor activity kids need to thrive. No child should be deprived of the opportunity to play due to inaccessible playground surfacing.
At Zeager Bros., Inc., we strive to provide the best in safe and accessible playground surfacing. In our more than 50 years of operation, we’ve developed many landscaping and recreation surfacing products, including a range of engineered wood fiber for playgrounds called WoodCarpet.
To make our products more accessible, we’ve worked with the U.S.D.A. Forest Products Research Lab to develop a stabilized EWF. Today, we provide ADA-compliant EWF as well as other accessible surfacing materials, such as our RECBASE synthetic turf. To assure our surfacing is both safe and accessible, we test these products using ASTM methods. They currently comply with ADA, ASTM, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Canadian Standards Association standards.
Zeager is committed to helping you find surfacing that’s both accessible and affordable, in Massachusetts and across North and Central America. For more information on our products and our ability to provide safe, accessible playground surfacing, feel free to reach out to us today.