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Last modified: Tuesday, July 19, 2011

First year results of a playground surface study find problems after just 12 months

July 19, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- An Indiana University study examining the accessibility of playground surfaces found that within just 12 months of installation, each type of surface studied was found to have accessibility, safety or maintenance issues.

Play Surface

The impact attenuation of the playground surface is tested in front of a young audience of neighborhood kids.

Print-Quality Photo

The National Center on Accessibility, with funding from the U.S. Access Board, is conducting a longitudinal study on the installation and maintenance of accessible playground surfaces, examining various types of surfacing materials at 25 newly constructed playgrounds, with surfaces including poured-in-place rubber, engineered wood fiber, rubber tiles and hybrid surface systems.

"Our findings support what accessibility professionals have thought all along -- there is no perfectly accessible playground surface," said Jennifer Skulski, the study's principal investigator. "It is critical the playground owner understand the functions and limits of each type of surface in order to select the surface most appropriate for their site -- one that costs more up front but likely takes little maintenance over the years OR one that costs significantly less up front but may require more seasonal maintenance."

The new ADA Standards for Accessible Design, adopted by the U.S. Department of Justice on Sept. 15, 2010, require that all new public playgrounds covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act be accessible to people with disabilities. Playgrounds typically covered by the ADA include public parks, elementary schools and child care facilities.

Accessible features not just for kids

Surface material contributes greatly to the accessibility of a playground because it connects the user with the play equipment. An accessible surface allows a child with a mobility impairment to access the play space with his or her peers.

"Where the surface is inaccessible, the child with the disability becomes the observer rather than the active participant," Skulski said.

The surface can not only present a barrier for children with disabilities, she said, but also for the adult parent or caregiver with a disability. If, for example, a child they are supervising falls on an inaccessible surface, the caregiver with a mobility impairment will not be able to get to the child for assistance, aid or comfort.

"The accessibility of the playground surface material is critical to the experience of the child with a mobility impairment," Skulski said. "If the child has to expend so much energy just to ambulate across the surface, he or she will have little to no energy left to actually play on the equipment and have a good time with friends."

In the study, each type of surface studied was found to have accessibility, safety or maintenance issues within just 12 months of installation. Poured-in-place rubber installed at one site was not resilient enough to meet ASTM standards for impact attenuation. Surface tiles installed at another site had puncture holes, buckling and separating seams that created openings and changes in level on accessible routes.

More study findings, which are outlined in an NCA report "A Longitudinal Study of Playground Surfaces to Evaluate Accessibility -- Year One Findings", include:

  • Playground sites with loose fill engineered wood fiber were found to have the greatest number of deficiencies affecting the accessible route to play components, including a lack of firmness and stability.
  • Rubber tile and poured-in-place rubber surfaces were found to have the highest level of firmness and stability.
  • Besides firmness and stability issues, many surfaces had noncompliant slopes, cross slopes and changes in level.
  • In some instances, surface materials were not installed according to manufacturers' recommendations to achieve an accessible surface.

The study was undertaken to collect information helpful to the public in choosing surfacing materials most suitable for playgrounds based on performance, installation and maintenance considerations. NCA researchers continue to monitor and test surfacing materials at project sites to assess results over a total period of three years. The project is due to be completed next year.

New standards

The new ADA Standards for Accessible Design require accessible routes to the accessible play components. Generally, this includes a running slope of less than 6.25 percent, cross slope less than 2.08 percent, and changes in vertical level less than an inch. For a child using a wheelchair, walker or other assistive device, they will require the ground to be level under the swings in order to safely transfer onto the equipment. Under the swing in particular, many loose fill surface materials like engineered wood fiber and shredded rubber are easily displaced with a large kick-out area and excessive slope that prohibits the child from making a safe transfer.

If someone has concerns about the accessibility of a playground, they should first contact the playground owner, such as the parks director, school principal or child care center director about the new ADA Standards, including the Chapter 10 section specific to playgrounds.

The playground owner should determine what maintenance may be necessary to make sure there is an accessible route throughout the play area. This may require replenishing loose fill material or replacing/resurfacing unitary material. The playground owner should contact the surface manufacturer in advance to confirm the manufacturer's maintenance recommendations prior to making corrective actions and so not to void the manufacturer warranty.

The study is available at

NCA is part of the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies in IU's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. For more information, visit

Skulski can be reached at or 812-856-4422.