Planning Accessible Play Facilities

April 1, 1997
Since 1991, federal guidelines stemming from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have mandated that new and renovated facilities open to the public

Since 1991, federal guidelines stemming from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have mandated that new and renovated facilities open to the public be accessible to individuals with disabilities. To date, however, the focus has been on improving access to and within the buildings themselves. Now, new guidelines are taking shape that may hold significant consequences for the planning and design of public playgrounds, and ultimately for children of all abilities as they engage in outdoor play.

The new guidelines are being drafted by the Regulatory Negotiation Committee (and its predecessor, the Play Settings Subcommittee of the Recreational Advisory Committee) of the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board). Still subject to public review and comment, these guidelines are scheduled for adoption by the Access Board in 1998. As currently drafted, the guidelines contain strict recommendations regarding playground surfacing and play-equipment access, and will clearly impact school districts when building, renovating or planning playgrounds.

A far-reaching effect While the objective of ensuring fun and challenging outdoor play experiences for children with disabilities is important, the guidelines are certain to cause concern among public schools because significantly higher expenditures probably will be required for accessible materials and construction. Unfortunately, many schools may eliminate or decrease the size of playgrounds, or reduce the number of play components to compensate for increased costs.

The Access Board's Regulatory Negotiation Committee is seeking to establish parameters that will result in enhanced opportunities for all children. With this in mind, the committee has drafted guidelines that address accessible surfacing and adaptations to play structures. Play experiences, such as swinging, sliding, climbing and manipulative/interactive participation, have been examined to determine the best way to make these activities available to children of varying abilities. Once adopted, the guidelines will amend existing ADA regulations and require school administrations to provide a "similar and like" play experience for all students.

Before beginning construction on or upgrading a play area, building committees should carefully review the new policies and recommendations. An architect or supplier can help guide schools in determining key issues, establishing budgets, and ensuring that playgrounds are well planned to be safe, accessible and fun for all students. In particular, consultants can assist in exploring options for playground surfacing and how best to accommodate new requirements for ramps and transfer points to access play equipment.

Accessible surfacing Surfacing is one of the most important considerations in designing safe and accessible playgrounds. For many years, asphalt was the leading surface material because it was inexpensive to install and maintain. However, asphalt does not meet current standards for use under and around play equipment. In recent years, as resiliency has become an increasingly important factor in selecting surface materials, schools have turned to other options including sand, pea gravel, wood fiber products and rubber products.

The committee's draft guidelines specify that "surfaces under and around accessible play equipment and other play equipment in the play area shall be firm, stable and slip resistant, and where within the use zone of equipment, impact attenuating. The surfacing material shall minimize splintering, scraping, puncturing or abrading the skin when being crawled on."

These parameters may lead to scrutiny of popular surface options. For example, although a surface composed of hard-wood fibers will compact to allow wheelchair accessibility, it may not meet the new criteria due to its potential to cause splinters or skin abrasions. Sand and pea gravel are not accessible surfaces and are not as resilient as hard-wood fiber. Pea gravel can be somewhat treacherous-like walking on marbles-when it is displaced onto play pavement and structure decks.

Rubber products, which are typically more expensive, will continue to be good options for playground surfacing. Products currently available include:

Pre-manufactured rubber tiles over a concrete or asphalt base. Poor installation may lead to separation of joints between tiles. When making a transition to pavement or other loose fill-material surfacing, beveled edges create a smooth surface transition to help avoid tripping. Tiles may require more maintenance than the poured-in-place option, but are initially less expensive.

Poured-in-place rubber surfacing. This uniform surface is durable, resilient, and probably the best surfacing option under the new guidelines. It also is the most expensive and can consume an entire playground budget unless used with a loose fill material such as wood fiber.

Shredded rubber covered with a polyethylene mesh. Still new on the market, this product shows promise as an accessible surface at one-third the cost of rubber tiles.

Extent of accessible surfacing The current definition in the Americans with Disabilities Act considers a walk with a slope greater than 5 percent to be classified as a ramp. Up to this point, a ramp could have a maximum slope of .082 (1:12) with handrails on both sides of the walkway. The new guidelines may require that a ground-level route (ramp) not exceed 1:16 slope (maximum .0625) but would not need to have handrails within the use zone of a play structure.

Guidelines recommend that the accessible route should be at least 5 feet wide to allow two wheelchairs to pass or turn. The width of an accessible route may be reduced to 36 inches for seating or activity areas. Parking spaces for a wheelchair should be 30 inches by 48 inches and located out of the main path of travel.

At a minimum, accessible surfacing should loop through the play area and link all accessible play equipment. Within the "use zone" of play equipment (the recommended buffer area surrounding each component) the surfacing must be resilient to help absorb falls. The critical fall heights of play components are defined by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in its American Society for Testing Materials specifications for public play equipment (ASTM F1487-93). This information is a guide in making decisions about resiliency requirements in surfacing.

A combination of rubber and a loose-fill material may be necessary for projects with a limited budget. Smooth transitions from one play surface to another are important. For example, the edge of uniform rubber surfacing-tiles or poured-in-place-should be at an angle of 20 to 30 degrees as it meets a loose fill surface, to prevent students from tripping as they run from one area to the next.

Cost is a key factor in determining type and extent of surfacing under the new guidelines, and some issues remain to be explored. For example, requiring that rubber surfacing totally encircle a play structure at a distance to meet minimum-use zones of play equipment will prove expensive, and other options may need to be considered.

Ramps and transfer points Currently, elevated ramps (on play structures) must be 36 inches wide with a maximum slope of 1:12 and are to have a maximum rise of 12 inches between level landings. Landings where the ramp will change direction must have a minimum 5-foot-diameter turning radius. The new guidelines currently specify that one-half of the components-slides, wall panels and climbers-of a modular play structure are to be accessible. If there are fewer than 20 components, accessibility will be provided by transfer points. If there are 20 or more components, the structure must be 25 percent accessible by ramps and 25 percent accessible by transfer points.

The installation of ramps between deck levels will require more space, which often is not available. The cost and space requirements for switch-back ramps that allow wheelchairs to reach the highest deck levels (currently most major play equipment manufacturers recommend a maximum 6-foot deck height) may mean keeping the maximum deck height closer to 4 feet-which will limit the challenge inherent in the play activity.

Transfer points, which should be 14 inches to 18 inches high, enable a child in a wheelchair to pull along the side of a play structure deck and move from the chair to the deck with the aid of grab loop handrails. A maximum 8-inch change in adjacent deck heights will allow many disabled children to crawl from deck to deck, reach a slide to accessible ground surfacing, and crawl back to a step to complete the loop back to the transfer deck.

Ground-mount play components must have one of every type component accessible. On playgrounds that have a modular play structure with 20 or more elevated components, there are to be at least half as many accessible ground components in the play area (i.e., if there are 20 elevated, there must be 10 ground-accessible components). Components must follow the accessible reach-range of children if they must be manipulated as part of the play experience in order to be considered as accessible.

Planning alternatives The common goal is to provide play settings that are accessible to all children. The new guidelines from the Regulatory Negotiations Committee and the Access Board will set standards to meet this objective, but are in jeopardy of creating requirements that are so stringent that playgrounds will lose much of their sense of adventure and fun.

Alternatives include providing a "social space" for physically challenged children that incorporates, at the ground level, the same opportunity for social interaction and exploration of the physical environment. The use of ramps leading to one lower deck level with a slide exit and the use of transfer points that would allow children to leave wheelchairs on the ground would be a cost-effective option. In addition, play-equipment manufacturers will need to develop components that provide similar sensations and experiences in sliding, rocking and swinging for physically challenged children; and play designers should consider other options for play areas beyond modular play structures-such as gardening and sand or water play.

There are many options available for play-area surfacing, including several products that will meet the new accessibility guidelines. Factors to consider in choosing a surfacing product include:

*A smooth surface. The surface should be "friendly" to children who are crawling or using a walker, cane or brace; and should allow children in motor-driven or manual wheelchairs to easily propel themselves forward.

*Resiliency. Critical fall heights for each play component help determine the requirements for surface resiliency-the ability to absorb falls.

*Flammability. This is an important criterion in selecting rubber products, although there are currently few test results and guidelines available for reference.

*Color. A surface color's ability to absorb heat may pose a threat to a crawling child.

*Maintenance. Poured-in-place rubber surfacing, though more expensive, eliminates the aesthetic and maintenance problems of tile joints that gap or have not been properly aligned.

*Cost. Rubber surfacing is typically more expensive than other options, such as loose fill material. A combination of surfacing materials may help meet both accessibility and budgetary requirements.

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