How are children actually injured on splash pads? How would a safety surface prevent or minimize these injuries?
Playgrounds and splash pads are used in remarkably similar ways: children climb, run, and jump as they interact with play features. The major difference between splash pads and dry playgrounds is the presence of water. In other words, splash pads are simply playgrounds + water. As a result, they share some similar safety concerns.
The first—and perhaps most obvious—cause of injury on both dry playgrounds and splash pads is falling. For this reason, as previously discussed, playgrounds universally require a cushioned surface to minimize injuries from falls, including falls from elevated play structures like monkey bars, ladders, and climbing walls. On splash pads, injuries typically occur when children slip and fall, so the fall is generally from standing height only. For this reason, splash pad surfaces can have a lower critical fall height than their dry counterparts, but cushioning is still needed. When children fall on splash pads, even if only from standing height, hard surfaces increase the risk of impact injuries like bruises, concussions, and broken bones, including skull fractures. As a result, we believe a critical fall height of at least 1 foot should be required for any splash pad surface material.
However, unlike playground injuries, splash pad falls often feature an additional, horizontal injury component. When children fall forward on a splash pad, it is not uncommon for them to skid before stopping, similar to a baseball player sliding into a base. This is due to the presence of water. Depending on the texture of the surface, skidding can be either unremarkable or incredibly dangerous. Children are especially vulnerable to abrasive injuries on splash pads, because they are usually wearing bathing suits, leaving much of their skin exposed. This increases the health risk both to the injured child, who is now bleeding from open wounds, and to the rest of the children using the pad, as they may be exposed to the injured child’s blood.
Given the likelihood of horizontal skidding injuries on a splash pad, it is not enough that splash pads simply be slip-resistant. Instead, it is absolutely essential that a splash pad surface be slip-resistant without being abrasive. Incredibly, it is now common to use hard surfaces on splash pads, such as concrete, and to increase traction by covering them with something abrasive, such as a grip sealant or brushed texture. While such abrasive surfaces are intended to reduce falls by increasing traction, they may do more harm than good, since they increase injuries when falls inevitably occur.
As we have shown, a hard surface with an abrasive coating will actually maximize injuries in both dimensions, as the child will slip and fall onto the hard surface and then skid across the cutting texture. This is why splash pad injuries could be mitigated or prevented by using a different surface—namely, a surface that is both cushioned and slip-resistant without being abrasive.