Ever since the first installation of Playtop impact-absorbing playground safety surfacing in 1977, the product has maintained its market-leading position by continually upgrading the technical performance while finding ways of remaining competitive.
Over the same period, the company has built up an international network of Licensee partners who now market and install the Playtop system in more than 40 countries around the world.
Barry Baker, who has held senior positions with Playtop throughout this period, traces the technical development of the product and the commercial development of the company through almost four decades.
Almost forty years of Playtop
by Barry Baker, International Business Development Manager, Playtop Licensing Limited
From the time of the earliest installations of Playtop impact-absorbing playground safety surfacing in the 1970s, the product has been the market leader in Britain, and it has held a similar position in Europe since the mid 1990s. Today it is marketed and installed in more than 40 countries by an international network of Licensee partners.
Playtop has maintained its position against competitors and imitators by continually upgrading the technical performance while finding ways to bring down the cost.
The technical story
The very first installation of Playtop was on a housing estate near Loughborough in England in 1977. Originally part of the Charles Lawrence Group of companies, Playtop already exhibited many of the crucial features of the product: a continuous, resilient surface without joints, mixed on site from rubber particles and polymeric binders and installed by a team of specialists - in contrast to pre-manufactured items such as rubber tiles.
The present-day Playtop (Playtop is now a registered trademark of Playtop Licensing Limited) surfacing is the fifth distinct generation of the product and results from a policy of continual research and development. It has been fully tested for compliance with both the European (CEN) and American (ASTM) Standards. With the development of the company's international Licensee network, the landmark of the first million square metres of Playtop was passed early in the new century and the product is now well on the way to its second million.
The development of Standards
The first Playtop installations in 1977 consisted of 12 mm thickness of porous rubber laid on asphalt or concrete, with a sprayed top coat. Being resilient, the material clearly provided better cushioning than traditional hard playground surfaces, but there was no scientific basis for its performance.
Soon afterwards, research in America established the medical criteria needed to prevent brain injuries in falls. The crucial factor was found to be deceleration. If the deceleration of a child's head as it struck the ground could be limited to 50 g (fifty times the force of gravity), permanent brain injury was very unlikely. This became the basis of new British and then European Standards for impact-absorbing playground surfacing.
From then on the performance required of a playground surface was clear. It must have just the right elastic properties, neither too soft nor too hard, to maintain deceleration below 50 g. And it must be thick enough to go on deforming progressively until the child's head was safely brought to rest.
Achieving the performance was relatively easy. For higher equipment you just added more material. But the considerable thickness of the resilient material required under the highest play equipment - typically 150 mm for a fall height of 3 m - made the first products very expensive.
Better performance at lower cost
Starting from the unchanging basic requirement of safety through impact absorption, the development of Playtop was therefore directed towards bringing down the capital cost of surfacing able to give the required performance, and at the same time improving its durability, so improving total Life Cycle Cost.
In the first product, 12 mm of black rubber crumb and shred was hand-laid onto an asphalt or concrete base, followed by a spray application of red- or green-coloured rubber-polymeric material to provide a cosmetically attractive coating. Very little impact absorption was provided, but Playtop offered a comfortable, level surface for children to circulate and play on - a considerable improvement on the muddy potholed grass, sand, gravel, broken asphalt, hard concrete or uneven paving slabs that were the norm in the 1970s.
The second-generation Playtop saw the introduction of through-coloured EPDM-rubber for a full depth of 15 mm as an alternative to applying colour by spraying. Previously the need for calm conditions for spraying - and even more the restricted temperature range at which early binders would cure - had limited installation in Britain to the months between spring and autumn, on a good day!
By the early 1980s, playground safety was the subject of public debate in Britain. The consumer television programme 'That's Life', presented by Esther Rantzen, raised parents' awareness of the potential for accidents in the playground and increased pressure on politicians to make funding available. At the same time, some absurd claims for impact-absorbing surfaces were made - such as"you can bounce an egg on it without breaking the shell".
After exhaustive tests with leading scientific consultants at the Greater London Council, the Charles Lawrence Group responded with their third-generation product, Playtop 85. This had a 15-mm-thick top layer laid over a mixed base of mineral aggregate and rubber, which in turn was laid on a 150 mm thickness of clean stone. This structure, coupled with improved binders, allowed all-year-round installation, improved the porosity of the surface and eliminated the expense of providing a concrete or asphalt foundation. Playtop 85 was available in standard thicknesses from 15 mm to 150 mm and certified for fall heights from play equipment of up to 3 metres. The system was an immediate success and was imitated worldwide.
The most crucial breakthrough in reducing cost came in the 1990s, when we discovered that the rubber used for commercial-vehicle tyres has ideal elastic properties for playground surfacing. Furthermore, it was available very cheaply in old, unwanted casings, which in an increasingly 'Green' age were becoming expensive to dispose of.
In order to secure itself a feedstock of known quality, and to achieve economies of scale, the Charles Lawrence Group therefore designed and built its own plant to recycle old tyres into rubber granules. Today this processes 400,000 tyres a year and produces some 13,000 tons of granules for sports and play surfacing.
In the resulting fourth-generation Playtop of the 1990s, the base layer consisted of coarse recycled-rubber granules and the top layer of finer recycled-rubber granules, mechanically interlocked as well as chemically bonded at the joint to create an immensely strong structure.
The top-layer granules could be pre-coated red or green to provide basic colour effects at low cost. The product was significantly cheaper than previous versions, especially in thicker layers beneath high play equipment. About this time the Charles Lawrence Group also started to design and manufacture its own specialised mixing machines and hand tools, making itself largely self-sufficient.
The current product
The fifth and current generation of Playtop followed toward the end of the 1990s and was marked by refining of the granulate size in the base layer and by improvements to pre-coating techniques in the top-layer rubber. This further increased the product's strength and durability and allowed the construction of two-layer systems down to 40 mm in thickness that could be laid directly on a loose-stone base, without the added expense of an engineered layer.
At the same time a huge colour range of fine EPDM-rubber granules was introduced for the top layer. This has provided a wealth of new opportunities for creating exciting - and permanent - playground designs that will attract children to come and play where it is safe.
Partnership with Nike
In 2005, Playtop became one of Nike's first international partners in the sportswear company's Reuse-A-Shoe programme for recycling old sports shoes and trainers and globally exclusive for children's playgrounds.
The best of the shoes being sent to the third world for the benefit of less advantaged young people, while those beyond further use are sliced and then mechanically ground to create materials for sports and play surfaces. The rubber granules from the outsoles, branded as Nike Grind, can be incorporated in the top layer of Playtop at levels up to 20%. Apart from the environmental and cost benefits, the recycled granules produce an attractive speckled effect.
One of the first installations of Playtop with Nike Grind was for the red perimeter track at Manchester United Football Club.
Leading the industry
From the earliest days of impact-absorbing playground surfacing, Playtop has committed itself to developing internationally accepted technical Standards for product performance and methods of testing and installation. It has assigned personnel and finance to working on or with British and European Standards Committees, trade associations, test houses, consultants and National Safety Committees in individual countries.
The company has also worked closely with other responsible manufacturers and contractors to create and supervise recognised codes of commercial practice in the industry.
The Charles Lawrence Group was a founder member of the Association of Play Industries (API) in Britain and was instrumental in the introduction of the API's Guide to Safety Surfacing.
Today, Playtop is also a member of the Federation of European Play Industries (FEPI) (represented at Board level), the Sports & Play Construction Association (SAPCA) in Britain, and the US-based International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA).
From the early 1980s, staff from the Charles Lawrence Group travelled to countries as far away as Australia to install Playtop. However, in the mid 1990s a decision was taken to promote Playtop internationally through locally based Licensees, who would be equipped with Charles Lawrence Group machinery and materials and fully trained in their use. Each Licensee is granted exclusive rights to market and install the system in a defined territory.
ProUrba in Paris became the first Licensee in 1996 and a growing family of Licensees is now developing to ensure that Playtop is available to more and more children around the world. Exclusive Licensee partnerships currently exist in territories: with varying climatic conditions from Bahrain to Greenland.
There is an ongoing strategy to seek new Licensees in countries where Playtop is not yet available with Russia the latest territory added in 2015.
Materials, training and support
Under a partnership agreement the Licensee purchases the rubber granules (which are manufactured through recycling at the Charles Lawrence International plant), the specially blended polymeric binder, and the purpose-built mixing machinery (which is designed and manufactured by Charles Lawrence International).
Once an agreement is signed, a new Licensee is given access to all Playtop system knowledge, and on-site training for the Licensee's installation operatives is provided. This is backed by a comprehensive package of marketing support, which includes local-language versions of the Playtop brochure, technical literature and website, as well as material samples, pricing-system disks and other sales materials together with all necessary certification.
Playtop Licensing Limited also holds International Sales Meetings, which bring together its Licensees from around the world. These meetings concentrate on technical training of management personnel, the exchange of practical experiences, and creating a close working relationship between everybody involved in marketing and installing Playtop. A Licensee of the Year Award is also featured.
The first meeting was held in Cologne in Germany in 2003 and the second at Manchester United football stadium in the UK in 2005. The 2006 venue was Barcelona in Spain whilst the 2007 meeting was held in Dublin, Ireland 2009 at Gothenburg in Sweden, 2010 at Windsor in the UK, 2012 in Milan, Italy, 2014 in Paris, France and the 40th Anniversary celebration will be celebrated with an International Meeting at a venue still to be selected in 2017.
The Playtop website, www.playtop.com, has earned the company recognition from the regional East Midlands Development Agency in Britain. Playtop was honoured as the Best International Communicator for 2005.
An even greater honour followed in 2006 when, in conjunction with her 80th Birthday celebration on 21 April, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II recognised the growth and performance of Playtop in international markets with the granting of the Queen's Award for Enterprise in Industry.
Playtop Spheres were first introduced in Spain when meeting a request by an Architect for whom we were providing Playtop surfacing at the inspirational Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in 2004. Available in a three diameter sizes and a choice of 18 colours Playtop Spheres are now incorporated into project designs around the world and have been hugely popular at Kindergardens, School Playgrounds and in Municipal Squares/Piazzas as an item of park furniture. Anchored in the ground they are tough, durable and aesthetically pleasing.
Playtop maintained its tradition of keeping with the times and in 2010 launched Playtop Street a unique concept of interactive surfacing - traditional Nike Grind wet pour surfacing in a purpose designed play arena mixed with satellites displaying colours and sounds when touched by foot or hand to provide physical and mental challenges for children and adults of any age. The range of designed layouts and games has been widened in subsequent years to meet customer demands and follow technical developments and Playtop Street can now be found installed in Shopping Malls, Theme Parks and at Hotels as well as in more traditional playground environments around the globe with great success and retains its uniqueness in the market.
Playtop Licensing Limited and the Charles Lawrence Group was sold in 2015 to the Swiss based Serafin company following the retirement of the principal shareholder Charles Lawrence but the Playtop name endures with the same hard working team at the helm with the added advantage of more 'in house' control over the quality, availability, research and development of the component materials that contribute to ensure Playtop remains the world leader in wet pour impact absorbing surfacing through co-operation with its sister company in the Serafin Group, Conica one of the world's leading manufacturers of EPDM crumb and polymeric binders in the sports and recreation market.
Into the future
Today Playtop can be found in most parts of the world still operating from its headquarters in Newark, Nottinghamshire in the UK with a regional office in Denmark to service its Scandinavian and East European markets. The climatic conditions Playtop has to face range from the cold of Iceland and Finland to the heat of the Middle East and the Mediterranean regions of Spain, Italy and France and the extreme changes of Japan.
In its almost 40 years' history, Playtop has been chosen for a long list of highly prestigious installations, which include:
- in the UK, Alton Towers, Legoland and the Millennium Dome
- in France, the Jardin des Tuileries at the Louvre and Disneyworld
- in Spain, the Guggenheim Museum and the Rioja Wine Museum
- in Belgium, the European School and the British School
- in Japan, the Emperor's Memorial Park in Tokyo
- in Qatar, Doha International Airport
- in Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz Cultural Center
- in Brazil, Madureira Olympic Park, Rio de Janeiro
- in Denmark, Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
- in India, Worlds of Wonder Theme Park, New Delhi
Playtop is also installed at US military bases right across Europe and on outdoor playgrounds attached to McDonald's restaurants.
In addition to children's playgrounds, Playtop's properties of resilience, durability and rapid drainage have found it many other applications for walkways and assembly and recreation areas at golf courses, zoos, theme parks, botanical gardens, prisons, health spas, homes for the elderly and hospitals and special units for sick and disabled children.
None the less, the vast majority of Playtop installations are still in relatively 'ordinary' playgrounds in parks, schools and estates, where they protect hundreds of thousands of children from the most serious consequences of falling.
The process of development never ends. At Playtop we are continually finding ways to improve our playground surfacing in terms of safety performance, durability, first cost and Life Cycle Cost. At the present time the sixth generation of Playtop impact-absorbing playground surfacing is under development. Much of the History of Playtop has still to be written...