Play it safe with surface cushioning under swing sets

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.

Good options include rubber mulch, wood mulch, sand, fine gravel or safety-tested rubber mats, which are more forgiving than grass and dirt, 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. If you are using 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," Jess 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," he said.

Regardless of which surface parents choose, Manfredini suggests first installing a weed protection barrier. He also recommends against using weed killers near play sets.