The solution to playground injuries was painfully obvious in Akron.
In order to help pupils avoid skinning their knees and scraping their elbows on asphalt at recess, Akron Public Schools experimented with layers of sawdust, cork and limestone sand on blacktops in the late 1940s.
Then it suddenly occurred to officials: How about the local product?
Akron received national acclaim when it became the first U.S. city to install rubberized playgrounds, an innovative idea that eventually stretched across the continent.
In 1946, Charles S. Hamlet, supervisor of outside maintenance for the Akron Board of Education, began testing materials to protect children.
Nothing ruined a good game of Superman, Tarzan or Flash Gordon more than an evil arch-enemy known as gravity.
Natural grass was the preferred surface, of course, but it was nearly impossible for schools to maintain a lawn with children trampling it all day, Hamlet said.
He spread sawdust under swing sets, sliding boards and jungle gyms to cushion kids from potential falls, but determined that sawdust merely washed away in the rain and snow of Northeast Ohio.
He tried raking pulverized cork under playground equipment, but the results were disappointing. Limestone sand didn’t seem to work, either.
In 1947, Hamlet had a brainstorm to approach Goodyear and Firestone executives about recycling rubber for the playground project. As “the Rubber Capital of the World,” Akron had easier access to the bouncy, gooey stuff than most other cities.
Tests at Akron schools
Maintenance workers diced the rubber, heated it and slathered it onto the surface of blacktop test squares at Margaret Park, Findley, King, Heminger, Rankin, McEbright and Lincoln schools.
“It makes just as much difference as carpeting placed on a bare floor,” Hamlet explained to the Beacon Journal. “The rubber has no sharp abrasives to injure the skin when a child falls.”
Students enjoyed bouncing up and down on the rubberized surface. Maybe it was just their imagination, but they seemed to be able to leap higher, and basketballs had more oomph.
“We hope the new resurfacing method is the answer,” Hamlet said. “But we won’t know for a couple years, at least. We have to give the surface time to deteriorate.”
After a year of wear and tear, the playgrounds held up “remarkably well,” Hamlet said.
In 1950, the Akron school board felt comfortable enough to hire the Portage Bituminous Co. to coat the entire 3,500 square yards of Margaret Park’s playground with a half-inch of rubber. Firestone and Goodyear supplied light and dark shreds for the emulsion.
Other local schools soon followed suit.
The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Popular Mechanics, Newsweek and Woman’s Home Companion were among the national publications to print articles about Akron’s “playgrounds with bounce.”
Robert H. Harper, director of physical welfare education for Akron Public Schools, was quoted as saying: “We may have the answer to not necessarily a safe but a safer playground.”
“During the past five years, a very durable rubber mixture has evolved which can be spread over and adheres to the hard base, giving a spongy bounce, somewhat similar to the bounce of a thick carpet, to the person walking upon it,” Harper said. “The cost of the material is not excessive because it is made of used and discarded rubber, chopped into small particles and held together by asphalt emulsion.”
Harold S. Wagner, director of the Akron Metropolitan Park District, hailed the rubberized topcoat as “the best thing on the market today for durable, easily maintained and safe play-area surfacing.”
However, he warned: “Remember that kids can fall on a half-mile deep pile of feathers and still hurt themselves.”
In March 1952, the National Safety Council sent a delegate to inspect Akron’s schoolyards. Senior representative Nancy Telford toured playgrounds, talked to local officials and took notes.
She left town with samples of wood blocks coated in the rubber-and-asphalt mixture.
“Akron is to be congratulated for its experiments,” she declared. “You are fortunate in having a school administration which senses this problem and is trying to find a solution. Lots of localities drift along and hope nothing will happen.”
Hamlet’s idea oozed across the country’s playgrounds like a wave of hot rubber.
Soon kids everywhere were bouncing up and down on rubberized surfaces.
Although application techniques and materials have evolved over the decades, the original concept remains firmly ingrained today.
“A playground should never be installed without protective surfacing of some type,” the Consumer Product Safety Commission notes in its latest handbook. “Concrete, asphalt or other hard surfaces should never be directly under playground equipment.”
It also states: “Older playgrounds that still exist on hard surfacing should be modified to provide appropriate surfacing.”
Nice work, Akron.
You paved the way.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book to be published Friday by the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.