How Did We Come to Playground Rubber Wood Chips? #TeacherMom

This was my inquiry on Google. Which then changed to “history of playground surfacing.” I earnestly wanted to know how we went from the sand and grass of my childhood to rubber mats and engineered wood fiber. Was it really, as comments on the currently popular image below would have us conclude, that today’s schoolchildren and their parents are over-protective “snowflakes?”

Turns out, there’s quite a bit more to the issue than nostalgia for the good ol’ days of tough kids and tough love.

An element that especially caught my attention was accessibility. In 2000, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed as a civil rights law to prevent disability discrimination. Sand and gravel do not allow wheelchair-bound children to access playground equipment. Suddenly, I find the nostalgia fading for times when public funds only served able-bodied kids.

The much more slippery slope here, of course, is safety. I know I look back at my playground-sand “rug burns” with some strange fondness, and I’m certainly the last to suggest that preventing all cuts, bumps, or bruises is of a higher priority than play and exploration (I tend to congratulate my kids on “battle scars” when they get hurt while playing).

But I see nothing wrong with taking measures to mitigate serious injuries, especially when they are brain-related. Consider these figures from the CDC:

  • 200,000 children under age 14 visit hospital emergency rooms each year for playground-related injuries
  • 20,000 of these children are treated for traumatic brain injuries each year
  • The rate of hospital visits for traumatic brain injuries has recently increased significantly

While there are those that scoff at the fact that grass isn’t considered a safe playground surface, it’s important to remember that its “ability to absorb shock can be affected greatly by weather conditions and wear (via American Association of Orthopedics)–in other words, it becomes worn, compacted, and ultimately dangerous if you’re going to swing upside-down by your legs above it.

And again, it’s important to note that when we’re talking about brain injuries in children, it’s a serious conversation. According to the Brain Injury Association of America, “The assumption used to be a child with a brain injury would recover better than an adult because there was more “plasticity” in a younger brain.  More recent research has shown that this is not the case. A brain injury actually has a more devastating impact on a child than an injury of the same severity has on a mature adult.”

Of course, all precautions can be taken to an extreme — when we put kids at greater risk for childhood obesity than brain injury because we’ve so associated so much fear with rigorous play, for example, we still put them in harm’s way.

But when we wonder why things have changed since our own childhoods, we should remain curious, careful not to let our reminiscence stray into assumption and generalization.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto