Case Study: The Pursuit of Safe Play, Pt. 1

Matt Wagner News

In this three-part case study, three neighboring school districts in Kansas and Missouri have chosen SYNLawn artificial grass as the safe playground surface solution for serious concerns such as arson, injuries and rising maintenance costs.

Keeping kids safe at school is a priority for principals, staff and parents alike, and one of those areas of concern is the playground. There are different types of playground surfaces available, from pea gravel to wood mulch to rubber mulch, but most can present problems and even contribute to them. When playgrounds from the Blue Valley School District caught fire due to arson, they knew they had to find a better solution that still keeps children’s safety at the forefront. Blue Valley was the first school district in the area to realize that artificial grass was just what they needed, and their decision to have it installed later led to a domino effect of Blue Springs School District and Lee’s Summit School District adding artificial grass to their playgrounds as well.

Blue Valley School District

Blue Valley School District (BVSD) is located in the Kansas City Metropolitan Area and includes 20 elementary schools, nine middle schools and five high schools. The playgrounds include millions of dollars worth of shredded rubber, and BVSD has had a number of arson fires on their playgrounds, which at times has left kids with no place to play.

The Playground Surface Dilemmas

On July 4, 2011, three playgrounds were set on fire as a result of accelerant being used. The school district quickly decided that they needed to find a solution that wasn’t flammable in order to protect their equipment and significant investment. “We had a $50,000 insurance deductible per occurrence, so obviously that gets your attention real quick to figure out a way to deal with this and stop it,” said Jody Gill, grounds coordinator at the Blue Valley School District. They considered two options: a PIP option (poured in place rubber), which they concluded that it wasn’t a soft enough surface, and chemically treating the existing rubber mulch. “We thought let’s find something that we can protect the rubber mulch and find a way we can keep it from burning,” added Gill, who has been with BVSD for 20 years. It was then that they had the idea to install artificial grass on their playgrounds.

Before and After:

  • image of mission trail elementary playground with a tan double slide on top of rubber mulch
  • image of prairie star elementary playground with a green curved double slide on top of rubber mulch
  • image of cedar hills elementary school playground equipment burned down
  • image of cedar hills elementary playground equipment with double red slide burned down

(Top Left) The rubber mulch left BVSD staff to regularly level out the playground surface. (Top Right) This before photo shows a playground at Prairie Star Elementary in Overland Park, Kans. (Bottom Left) In 2011, three playgrounds burned down due to arson. (Bottom Right) The devastating fires left kids with no place to play.

While playground vandalism was certainly their biggest issue at hand, there were also other problems with the rubber mulch. Since it moves around when the kids use the playground, the staff would have to maintain each playground regularly in order to level out the surface. They also had some of the rubber mulch stolen. “We would have people in the neighborhoods who would come and take a wheel barrel of it because they wanted to create a little playground at home, and that adds up over time,” said Gill. Another issue came from parents who complained that their kids’ white socks turned black and that they would find the mulch in their kids’ shoes.

Over the time Gill has been with the school district, he’s seen the playgrounds transition from pea gravel to wood mulch to the shredded rubber, which they loved because it was so soft. He mentioned that during the wintertime, wood mulch gets hard, holds water and freezes, and the kids aren’t able to play on the playgrounds because the surface is so hard. The wood mulch also breaks down over time, and because the fibers get smaller and smaller, they’re then having to add new wood mulch to provide some softness.

  • image of leawood kansas city playground
  • image of leawood kansas playground with artificial grass

(Left) This after photo of Prairie Star Elementary in Leawood, Kans., shows the new playground with our fire-safe artificial grass. (Right) Blue Valley School District has replaced 19 of the 33 playgrounds, including Mission Trail Elementary.

The Deciding Factors

The school district’s Jody Gill; Sid Cumberland, risk manager; and Dave Hill, executive director facilities and operations all started looking at local suppliers that would provide them with samples they could test and burn themselves. While some synthetic grass companies said their product wouldn’t work over such a soft surface, they finally reached out to SYNLawn Kansas City, the only ones that were willing to try installing artificial turf over the mattress-like rubber mulch.

“This was obviously devastating for the children and for the school because the kids no longer had a place to play,” said Angela Grego, owner of SYNLawn Kansas City. “Jody Gill said that they never wanted to have this happen again. They were going to search to find a playground surface that wouldn’t burn up, and that’s what he did with SYNLawn,” she continued.

… with the SYNBermuda 200 [now called SYNRye 211], the fire extinguished itself. We tested it multiple times, and the result was always the same. And that’s the point at which we decided this is the product we’re going to use.Jody Gill, grounds coordinator at the Blue Valley School District
  • image of artificial grass fire testing
  • image of synthetic turf fire test

(Left) After photo of fire resistance test using a nominal amount of accelerant on a 12-inch by 12-inch turf sample. (Right) After photo of fire resistance test using a liberal amount of accelerant. In both cases the turf extinguished the flames before spreading. If this should happen the portion of burnt turf could be cut away and replaced with a new patch of grass.

SYNLawn has one of the few products available in the market to be deemed “fire safe” for this type of application thanks to its Class One fire rating and self-extinguishing properties. Despite the testing and evidence provided by the renowned Testing Services International Inc. and in full compliance with government (ASTM) standards, Gill still wanted to do some testing of his own. They took some of the rubber mulch to the Overland Park Fire Department Training Center, and they performed some fire testing on different synthetic turf carpets over the rubber. They added accelerant to the rubber and a full cup of gasoline on the synthetic turf. “Most of them burned and the fire spread. However, with the SYNBermuda 200 [now called SYNRye 211], the fire extinguished itself,” said Gill. “We tested it multiple times, and the result was always the same. And that’s the point at which we decided this is the product we’re going to use.”

  • image of kansas city playground with synlawn
  • image of leawood kansas City swing set with fake turf

(Left) SYNLawn’s TrampleZones™ were added to busy traffic areas like under swing sets. (Right) Rain drains quickly and snow can be shoveled off SYNLawn’s playground surface, so kids can play right after a storm.

Choosing the Right Product

Blue Valley School District selected SYNRye 211 with TrampleZones™, which are installed in high-traffic areas such as slides and swing sets. The SYNRye 211 is an artificial grass that’s made of 100 percent nylon grass blades and features exclusive HeatBlock™ Technology to help keep surface temperatures about 20 degrees lower than other synthetic grass products. It is perfect for the high-traffic applications like children’s playgrounds and is covered with a 15-year manufacturer warranty. To help combat issues in the wintertime, the artificial grass features a drain rate of up to 30 inches per hour, and the snow can be shoveled right off the turf so that kids can get out and play. In accordance with ASTM testing standards and CSA-approved fall attenuation, SYNRye 211 also protects children from falls as high as 10 feet.

The SYNLawn Installation Process and Results

The first installs were done on the three playgrounds that burned down: Liberty View Elementary in Olathe, KS; Morse Elementary in Overland Park, KS; and Cedar Hills Elementary in Overland Park, KS. With a five-year plan in place to replace all 33 playgrounds, Blue Valley has installed SYNLawn on 19 of the 33 playgrounds to date. “Now that we’re able to capitalize on that soft surface and still have that mattress feel, there aren’t anymore fires, black socks or rubber in the shoes, and we feel like it’s been a wonderful solution,” added Gill.

  • image of playground seesaw with synthetic play grass
  • image of kansas city monkey bars with safe artificial grass

(Left) SYNLawn’s Playground System can handle high-traffic areas like the one here at Stanley Elementary in Overland, Kans. (Right) One reason BVSD chose SYNLawn’s Playground System is because it’s covered with a 15-year manufacturer warranty.

Lessons Learned

Gill noted that since wear patterns are going to be evident with this kind of traffic, understanding TrampleZones™ options were important. That was something they didn’t even realize could be incorporated into the SYNLawn Playground System and will actually help extend the life of the surface. This option ultimately was able to provide them with the best of all worlds – the ability to have a softer surface, not having to deal with the added cost of the rubber mulch maintenance and having a play surface that offers all of the safety elements the children need.

Add SYNLawn to Your Playgrounds

If you’d like to create a safer playground surface for your students at school or kids at home, then learn more about the playground products we offer. When you’re ready to discuss your need for artificial grass for your playground project, you can click here to find a SYNLawn distributor near you.


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