Keeping kids safe at school is an ongoing initiative for principals and school staff. As research confirmed, many of those injuries are due to the playground surface material. When the Blue Springs School District noted opportunities to reduce playground injuries, they aggressively researched improved playground surfaces. They looked to their friends in the west and were able to take advantage of some important lessons already learned from nearby Blue Valley School District, the first in the area to install artificial grass on their playgrounds.
Blue Springs School District
The Blue Springs School District (BSSD) consists of 14 elementary schools, four middle schools, and two high schools. The elementary playgrounds utilized wood mulch on their playgrounds, while other school districts in the area use rubber mulch. After learning about the devastating fires at the Blue Valley School District, Dr. Bill Cowling, assistant superintendent for BSSD, read about the SYNLawn fire-retardant nylon-based turf BVSD used and quickly came to the conclusion that artificial grass would make sense for their playgrounds too. While they were certainly aware of the threat of playground vandalism like arson and the loss of thousands of dollars worth of playground equipment, the issue BSSD faced was reducing injuries and improving play systems for their students.
The Playground Surface Dilemmas
There were documented clinic visits due to playground accidents. As a result of the wood mulch, children were going to see the nurse for wounds like abrasions and splinters. During the 2011-2012 school year, one school reported 11 breaks and sprains and 20 visits to the nurse’s office for issues related to wood mulch in the eyes. The wood mulch seemingly had advantages at first, and its low cost was one of them. However, the maintenance required to constantly reapply and redistribute the mulch chips became a regular function that increased their maintenance costs. Since wood mulch is easily displaced due to heavy traffic from the kids, this also meant that it was probably not meeting ASTM guidelines for proper HIC (head injury criteria) requirements.
The Deciding Factors
Dan Anderson, director of buildings and grounds at BSSD, had experience working with Kirk Grego, who has been in the artificial grass business for years and is also husband to the owner of SYNLawn Kansas City. It was Kirk who introduced them to the artificial grass solution. Cowling and Anderson began to research about the differences between the polypropylene and nylon synthetic turfs in order to determine which would offer the safest playground solution while reducing maintenance.
BSSD’s research team inspected the artificial turf installed at one of the BVSD playgrounds. They were able to observe the kids on the playground areas and talk to some of the parents. They witnessed some pretty extreme activity, including a pick-up football game, where the kids were tackling and hitting the ground. “The kids were bouncing right back up,” exclaimed Anderson. “We felt very comfortable with the turf setup with the padding underneath and the additional fall height protection,” added Anderson, who has been with the school district for 16 years.
They also had Kelly Flax, then principal of Thomas Utican Elementary and current principal of James Walker Elementary in Blue Springs, MO, view the installation in order to get their opinion on what was going to be a trial for their pilot at their playground. With three different viewpoints, Cowling focused on talking to BVSD about the investment and process, Anderson looked at the installation and Flax was concerned about how it would affect the kids at his elementary school.
Choosing the Right Product
Blue Springs chose to install a combination SYNBermuda 211 and SYNTipede 214 with TrampleZones™. SYNBermuda 211 (previously called SYNBermuda 220) is also a 100-percent nylon artificial grass and features exclusive HeatBlock™ Technology. It’s an excellent choice for high foot-traffic areas like children’s playgrounds. Like the SYNRye 211 (previously called SYNBermuda 200), it is also fire resistant due to its nylon composition.
SYNTipede 214 (previously called SYNTipede 322) is a soft polyethylene artificial grass that also features HeatBlock™ Technology and includes a texturized polypropylene thatch zone for added strength and resiliency. The Omega-blade construction adds to its ability to hold up well to very heavy traffic.
Both the SYNBermuda 211 and SYNTipede 214 are IPEMA Certified ASTM F1292-09 Compliant products and also protect children from falls as high as 10 feet. And, they both boast the coveted Class One fire rating. “I got a chance to really get into the research of the turf just because there’s a lot of turf companies out there, and they all have their selling points,” said Anderson. “The nylon is what we predominantly went with just because of the fire-retardant capabilities.”
I always feel good because I know that the kids are going to be protected. Falls occur everywhere that we have the pads. Dan Anderson
The SYNLawn Installation Process
Prior to choosing SYNLawn, the BSSD hired an architectural firm to assist them in how to have the artificial grass installed, how much of it to install and what sizes and shapes to create. The trial for the pilot program began in 2012 at a playground located on an interior courtyard at Thomas Ultican Elementary. “Another difference between nylon and polyethylene is the temperature of the product in the heat of the summer … nylon is a cooler environment, it doesn’t retain the heat as much. These are different reasons why we looked at the nylon instead of the typical polypropylene products,” noted Anderson. After trying it out for a year, BSSD replaced the wood mulch with artificial turf on every playground. Some of the playgrounds at the 14 elementary schools were large while others were small. Some also had four different play areas that received artificial grass whereas others had the turf extended around the building. “We had a whole variety of shapes, but they all served the purpose,” added Anderson.
The school district saved a considerable amount of money by removing the wood mulch in advance of our installers. Depending on the playground size, equipment involved and cooperating weather, Anderson said that the installation process took anywhere from seven to 10 days for each playground. While the play areas include padding underneath the artificial turf, they also went with non-padded areas outside of the play structures in order to give some of the schools larger play areas where kids can run around or play games like kickball. This technique leveraged limited resources nicely.
Most importantly was the application of the TrampleZones™ since the BSSD was concerned about kids getting injured. This use of more dense turf doesn’t make it look like the artificial grass is wearing out. They installed them on the playgrounds underneath the swings and where the kids come off the slides or pole. “We’ve got TrampleZones™ that are made out of putting green turf so that it always maintains a really sharp appearance,” said Anderson.
According to Anderson, the elementary school staff, kids and parents all love it, and the moms no longer have to do laundry with their kids’ clothes full of wood chips. “I always feel good because I know that the kids are going to be protected. Falls occur everywhere that we have the pads,” said Anderson. Angela Grego, owner of SYNLawn Kansas City, also agreed that the school district now has safety 24-7, 365 because the padding system is always there and never moves.
The area also gets a lot of snow in the wintertime, and he said that you’re able to shovel it off the artificial grass so that the kids can be playing that same afternoon. “That’s a huge advantage because when it rains or snows, the kids are right back on it without slip issues. There were so many other benefits of it besides the fall height protection,” said Anderson. In 2014, the BSSD was awarded the John Preston Award from the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS).
So far, it’s holding up well. Before installing synthetic turf, the maintenance was daily because the kids kicked out the wood mulch, or it would get washed away due to heavy rains. In order to maintain the fall height, staff members would have to rake it back up or the BSSD would have to add more wood mulch year after year. “There was a lot more daily maintenance whereas with this turf you don’t have that,” added Anderson. Now, to keep the organic material out, such as leaves and sticks, the custodians use a blower to blow it off, and in the summertime, they do a deep clean with larger equipment to get the organic material up, which Anderson said is something you don’t have to do.
To see kids playing in action on the SYNLawn artificial grass, check out this video testimonial from Ryan Crum, school principal at Daniel Young Elementary.
Anderson stressed the importance of finding a professional, experienced company that understands the needs of an education setting as well as the compliances that must be followed when installing playground equipment. “For us, it was what products are available and why are people doing that, and it was so new when we were starting on this. Nobody had it other than Blue Valley,” he continued.
Grego also recommends those considering artificial grass to speak with Dan Anderson. “He has an open-door policy about any of the school districts that want to question him about the safety and maintenance of his turf,” she added.
He also noted that for those considering adding artificial grass to their playground, he advises that you outline the perimeter and put your hardscapes in in order to know what the interior square footage will be and ultimately what it will cost you. He added that you have to go two-and-a-half times the height of the playground equipment, and you need a fall zone outside of that. “Try to come up with a budget because it’s a costly investment, but in the end, the return from a safety standpoint, an aesthetics standpoint and a total use standpoint is worth it,” he said.
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