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This post will cover the accessible route requirements for play areas.  Specifically, I want to take a look at the requirements for the provision of an accessible route to and around the play equipment as laid out under the 2006 revision of the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board’s rules and regulations (MAAB) and the 2010 ADA Design Standards (2010 ADA Standards).

Multiple codes apply to the surface of a playground to ensure both accessibility and safety.  Various codes require differing standards. For example, one code requires certain fall zone safety measures, while another requires an accessible surface.  All applicable codes need to be taken into consideration to ensure total compliance.  This often means designers must choose from limited surface options.  To illustrate, a walkway within the confines of a playground cannot be concrete or bituminous (asphalt) paving, although these surfaces can be used for walkways in nearly all other areas.

Now let’s take a closer look at what the accessibility codes require.

The MAAB (since 1996) and the ADA Design Standards (Since 2010) do not specifically call out a type of surface that must be used. However, they each have specific codes requiring an accessible route be provided to and around the elements provided within the play area.  An accessible route must be “stable, firm, slip resistant, and maintained with materials that ensure continued slip resistance” as well as free of changes in level exceeding ½ inch and must be provided to the play equipment, including the use zone of each element.  While this seems clear, limited surface options pose a challenge.

As mentioned, concrete or bituminous paving are not viable options. Wood chips, which many may remember as the playground surfaces of their childhood, do not meet either the MAAB or the ADA Standards because they are neither stable nor firm and can cause changes in level exceeding ½ inch.  Wood chips may be used in parts of the play area, but not for the accessible route and use zone areas.

So, what other materials can 1) ensure the obligations for a stable firm surface free of changes in level exceeding ½ inch, and 2) be easily maintained? Some common surface types to consider include but are not limited to:

  • Poured in place rubber – This surface typically has two layers: a wear layer with large rubber particles topped with a custom layer of granular particles to create a smooth surface.
  • Tiles – This surface is made of bonded rubber, similar to the poured in place rubber option, but typically designed as interlocking squares that are configured to meet the size of the route/play area.
  • Hybrid – This surface is a combination of the above types, as well as alternatives such artificial turf grass systems and two-layer systems of shredded rubber topped with rubber mats.

All of the surfaces listed above have pros and cons.  Poured in place rubber is one of the more expensive options to provide and requires skilled personnel to ensure maintenance.   Tile is also a more costly option but requires less skilled personnel to maintain.

The MAAB has issued two advisory opinions on this matter.  In 2003, the MAAB specifically cited wood chips as a non-compliant surface. In 2009 the MAAB reaffirmed its stance on woodchips and added that engineered wood fiber, a loose fill component comprised of rubber shreds compacted in place, is also non-compliant, citing a heavy maintenance obligation immediately after installation as well as concerns regarding the changes in level created by use of this material.

For more information, “A Longitudinal Study of Playground Surfaces to Evaluate Accessibility: Final Report,” published in October of 2013 by the National Center on Accessibility, considers common accessible surfaces being used and evaluates each for compliance with the 2010 ADA Design Standards and the ASTM 1951-99 Standards. The report also evaluates their costs and documents deficiencies that arise upon initial installation or those that might require maintenance after a 3-5 year period of use.

The most important factors to consider when selecting a surface material for an accessible route within a play area are whether the surface meets the code obligations and whether the surface can be sufficiently maintained to ensure continued compliance.

As always, if there are any questions related to this topic please let me know.  If you have topics you would like me to write about you can reach me by email at jeff.dougan@mass.gov or by phone at 617-727-7440 extension 27316.

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Assistant Director, Community Services Program

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