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Soft landings

Choosing the right surface for a school playground is a crucial part of creating a safe environment for children, says Robbie Craven

Posted by Dave Higgitt | January 20, 2014 | Sports & Leisure

Many actions can be taken to reduce the risk of injury in the playground, such as increasing adult supervision, but it’s important to look further than behavioural habits and into how a playground can be engineered to be safer.

In today’s context, where children are surrounded by technology, it’s more important than ever that they are encouraged outdoors to play in a safe environment. Designers should consider this at the inception of a build and also in refurbishment scenarios because, globally, the UK has some catching up to do, with New Zealand leading the way with the safest playgrounds.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has estimated that there are approximately 40,000 injuries to children on playgrounds which result in a hospital visit each year. Injury at an early age can cause long-term damage. Contributing factors to risk of injury range from poor playground design and unsuitable equipment for the intended age group to incorrect installation and poor maintenance of the environment. Safety is a topic that understandably drives strong emotions, and working with manufacturers to consider a wider range of outdoor surface solutions is a way to reduce the risk of injuries during play.

Children are habitually prone to minor injuries like grazed knees, but it’s the potentially life-threatening injuries that designers need to be aware of. Head Injury Criterion (HIC) is a key consideration relating to the impact attenuation of a particular surface and calculates the maximum height from which a life-threatening injury would not be expected to occur. When a surface includes HIC considerations, playground designers know that the fall height from equipment included should not exceed the critical height of the surface. HIC varies depending on the surface itself, its specification and its use, but when considered as part of the design process, can help to minimise the risk of critical head injuries and skull fractures.

Synthetic surfaces can improve safety standards, but there is a wide variety of options available. Choice of yarn on artificial turf surfaces for children is important as it needs to be durable and soft to touch. Infill and shock pads are also crucial components of a synthetic grass system and enhance safety credentials. It is not only a welfare concern: playground managers and schools could incur law suits for negligence if they fail to take care to ensure playgrounds are safe.

It is equally important that education designers aren’t hampered by health and safety constraints that can appear very restrictive. Outside the classroom, it’s important for children to enjoy social interaction and physical games in an imaginative environment. Playground games aren’t as influential within school culture as they used to be, as there has been a distinct shift towards technology as a source of entertainment. Consequently, creating environments that encourage children to work together and grow socially, emotionally and physically is important.

Synthetic grass systems such as TigerTurf’s Life product have been designed specifically for primary school playgrounds and use multi-coloured markings to differentiate areas for a variety of sports and games. Additionally, children have the opportunity to contribute to the design of their playground, allowing them to build a relationship with their outdoor surroundings. The company invests heavily in the development of its products and the subsequent testing procedures, not only to exceed testing standards, but to also deliver high performance.

To engineer safe playgrounds, TigerTurf recommends that designers work with surface manufacturers capable of offering bespoke solutions. Once a surface is in place, equipment that is safe to be installed and used in compliance with HIC figures should then be considered. The ultimate aim is to build the safest possible environment within which children can enjoy outdoor activities.

Robbie Craven is head of research and development at TigerTurf UK. W: www.tigerturf.com

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