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BACK TO SCHOOL: Pay attention to playground surfaces to prevent injuries

Recycled tire mulch is a popular playground surface option. 

"Ankle sprains, wrist fractures, clavicle fractures, head injuries..." According to Dr. Dana Frazine, they're all injuries that can happen easily on playgrounds.

More than 200,000 playground injuries are treated in ER's across the country every year, according to the US Consumer Products Safety Commission.

Columbia Parks and Recreation's resident playground expert, Senior Planner Matt Boehner, said decreasing the number of playground injuries is about more than just choosing the right swings or slide.

He said when it comes to preventing traumatic head injuries, it's about what's underneath the equipment. "Here in Columbia, we use a couple different surfaces," Boehner said. "Poured-in-place rubber, astro-turf, recycled tire mulch, those are some of the newer options."

Boehner said a majority of playgrounds in Columbia are surfaced with bark mulch, because it's the cheapest. But cost effectiveness does come with a price: "Bark mulch is a safe material for most all of our playgrounds, except for when it does freeze..."

When that happens, Boehner advised parents to remember that it's a much harder surface during that time. "Bark mulch doesn't have the fall surface protection that some of those other surfaces do, when it's during the frigid weather," he said.

Boehner said no matter what time of year it is, the amount of padding provided by any playground surface depends largely on the depth of the material. "Recycled tire, we can actually do 4 to 6 inch depth for up to a 15 foot fall height," he said. "But when it comes to bark mulch, it needs to be twice as deep as recycled tires to give the same amount of padding, so about 8 to 12 inches."

He said certified playground inspectors visit sites to make sure movable surface material stays in place, and popular playgrounds might even get an inspection once a week.

With proper maintenance, Boehner said recycled tire or bark mulch can help prevent catastrophic head injuries, but no surface will ever stop all sprains or fractures.

That's why Dr. Frazine said she still believes the most important playground safety feature of all is a parent's watchful eye.

"Just watch them, you know, there really isn't a shortcut to safety," she said. "At the end of the day, you really just have to watch your kid."

Dr. Frazine said if a child experiences dizziness, vision problems, or nausea after a playground fall with the possibility for head trauma, they should see a medical professional.

"Better safe than sorry," she said. "Head injuries aren't something to take lightly."

Dr. Frazine said she also suggests seeing a doctor as soon as possible if you think your child has fractured a bone. "It can be hard at times to differentiate between a fracture and a sprain or a strain, so if you're unsure, just keep an eye on your kiddo and make sure they get back to using the limb normally, and if not, come see us," she said.

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