A Guide to Choosing the Safest Playground Surface

There are a variety of safe playground surfaces that should be considered, and there's no rule saying a playground needs to stick to just one type of surface. Certain areas of the playground may benefit from one type of material, while other areas may use another type

Schools, public parks, and anywhere else that might have a playground can benefit from knowing their options in terms of playground surfaces. Keeping kids safe should be their number one priority, and it’s hard to do that with a concrete pad as the surface.

When it comes to playground safety, there are a few options for the surfacing that have varying degrees of safety and cost-effectiveness. These surfaces include, in no particular order, rubber matting, rubber mulch, wood chips, pea pebbles, turf, or sand, although there are others as well.

Each type of playground surface has various pros and cons that may make it a better choice for one playground or another. Many of these surfaces are also possible to implement in a backyard play area. Read on to get a better idea of how to choose the perfect playground surface for your next project.

How to Choose the Safest Playground Surface

Kids fall a lot when they’re running around and playing. Like, a shocking amount. With all those falls, choosing the right playground surface can mean the difference between a serious injury and just a bump or bruise. Luckily, there are plenty of options suitable for every budget and plan out there to help keep kids safe on the playground.

Choosing the right playground surface is essential for keeping the kids healthy and safe.

If you’re putting together your own playground or play area project, you might be feeling overwhelmed with all the choices you have for playground surfaces though. An easy way to get an idea of the options out there is to visit playgrounds in your area and see what they’re using. Here are some of the most common playground surfaces:

  • Rubber mats
  • Rubber mulch
  • Wood chips
  • Pea pebbles
  • Sand
  • Turf

These can loosely be categorized into two groups – unitary surfacing materials and loose-full surfacing. Sand, mulch, and wood chips are examples of loose fill, while rubber matting and turf are unitary.

There are others as well but these are probably what you’ll find when you’re out and about. Each of them has a number of advantages and disadvantages to them that will help guide your decision.

Ultimately, there are two factors that play the most significant role in choosing a surface: safety and cost. These will be the two main criteria used throughout this guide, though we will touch on some others as well.

Factors Influencing Playground Surfaces

While there are many factors that should go into any decision about which playground surface to choose, a number of them stand out. These factors will be discussed in greater detail below, but they include:

  • Safety
  • Cost
  • Maintenance
  • Long-Term Durability
  • Aesthetics
  • Americans with Disability Act (ADA) Compliance

Safety

First and foremost, among the criteria, a playground installer should use when evaluating surface choices is the materials safety rating. Most surfaces receive a rating that’s based on the safest height a child can fall from without sustaining injuries – called the surface’s fall height rating.

Playground surface material should be selected considering the height of the equipment.

Experts determine this rating by using a variety of tests to determine how absorbent material is and how high a child can fall from and hit the surface without sustaining injuries. A surface like concrete has a fall eating of virtually zero because an uncontrolled fall from any height will likely result in injuries. On the other hand, a thick rubber mat might have a fall rating of six feet.

A materials safety rating should take into account the intended height of play structures on the playground. If you plan to include tall structures, you’ll obviously need surfacing materials with a higher fall height rating.

Cost

Every playground has a budget for install costs, and the upfront cost of a surface must be taken into account. Generally speaking, loose-fill materials like sand, pebbles, or wood chips will be cheaper per square foot both to purchase and install than will unitary surfaces like turf or rubber. Typical costs for each type of surface will be discussed in greater detail throughout this article.

Maintenance

Another factor to consider is the cost to properly maintain the surface once it’s been installed. Different types of surfaces have different time requirements for upkeep, as well as different costs associated with repairs. If you want a playground surface that requires little to no upkeep, you might go with a unitary solution that requires very little upkeep.

On the other hand, loose-fill surfaces might require significant upkeep and repair because they compress naturally over time. Getting a good idea of the maintenance requirements for each type of surface will help you avoid surprise expenses in the long run.

Long-Term Durability

Closely related to maintenance requirements is a surface’s long-term durability, or how long it will last before it needs to be replaced completely. Certain surface materials are much more durable than others and can withstand the punishment that kids can often dish out.

When choosing the surface to install on your playground, it’s worthwhile to find out the life expectancy for the playground. However, more durable surfaces will most likely have higher upfront costs.

Aesthetics

You shouldn’t forget about picking a surface whose look matches the playground you’re trying to achieve. Some sorts of surfaces are inherently more aesthetically pleasing than others, and if your goal is to build a beautiful playground (which are very popular these days, especially in more affluent neighborhoods), you’ll definitely want to take aesthetics into consideration.

To make the playground area aesthetically pleasing, you should select the material that matches with the overall look of the equipment.

ADA Compliance

The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) has a number of guidelines and regulations that playgrounds must be in compliance with. These regulations are enforceable in a court of law, so playgrounds should be designed with ADA compliance in mind to avoid lawsuits and fines.

Some of these regulations can be applicable to playground surfaces so projects should take these into account. For instance, children in wheelchairs may have difficulty rolling across pea pebbles, whereas turf or rubber mats are much easier to roll across.

Risks Associated with Playground Surfaces

Before we get too deep into the different playground surfaces, it’s helpful to review the risks that playground surfaces should be trying to mitigate. Falls on a playground are inevitable, so a playground surface should try to make the impact of a fall as minimal as possible.

Injuries from falls can be catastrophic; they can include cuts, abrasions, bruises, and head injuries like skull fractures or even brain damage. If you’re designing and building a playground, you should always keep that in mind to keep kids safe as well as reduce the liability for any injuries that happen on the playground.

A Note About Liability

This guide isn’t intended to provide legal advice; if you’re installing a playground and you’re worried about liability, you should seek out the advice of a good lawyer.

Properly assessing the risks associated with your playground and mitigating those risks is a key to limiting liability for both the builder as well as the entity that owns the playground. Unfortunately, lawsuits are a real possibility so it’s important that every playground project has dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s to make sure they’ll be protected in any future litigation.

Overview of Playground Surfaces

The rest of this article will be devoted to evaluating the various types of playground surfacing through the lens of the criteria listed above. The table below provides a brief overview of these surfaces, and we’ll delve more deeply into each throughout the remainder of the article.

Surface TypeFall Height RatingCostMaintenance RequirementsLong-Term DurabilityAestheticsADA Compliance
Rubber MattingMidHighLowHighHighHigh
Rubber MulchHighMidMidLowLowLow
Wood ChipsHighLowHighLowMidMid
Pea PebblesMidLowHighLowLowLow
SandHighLowHighLowLowLow
TurfMidHighLowHighHighHigh

Sometimes, an assessment might find that different types of surfacing may be suitable for different areas of a single playground. For instance, you might determine that areas under spots where there’s more consistent impact, like at the bottom of a slide, might require a more durable material than the surfaces under play decks where children might play as frequently.

Rubber Matting

Pros: durable, highly accessible, visually pleasing, low maintenance costs

Cons: high upfront costs

Although rubber matting is an expensive option, it has high fall rating and provides the best protection.

Rubber matting can be installed in a variety of ways and takes a variety of forms, but in general, they’re either poured-in-place rubber, bond-in-place rubber, or interlocking rubber tiles. Rubber surfacing is becoming increasingly popular for a wide variety of playgrounds due to its high level of durability and the variety of colors it’s available in.

Rubber coverings have relatively high fall ratings as well, with most averaging in the range of 6′ or so. The thicker the layer of rubber, the higher the fall rating. With that being said, they are among the most expensive surfaces available to playgrounds. That cost can often be justified because of their lower maintenance costs over time and the benefits they provide.

Rubber Mulch

Pros: low install cost, recycled material, good fall safety rating

Cons: must be replenished over time, not visually appealing

Rubber mulch is a loose-fill material used to cover playgrounds. Made from recycled and shredded car tires, rubber mulch is significantly less expensive up-front than unitary rubber surfaces but it suffers from having higher maintenance costs over its life. Loose-fill materials can compact up to 25% over their lifetime due to weather and natural setting, and as they compact, they lose fall rating.

Therefore, they’ll need to be replenished from time to time, which increases the cost of maintenance. Rubber mulch comes in a few different colors, but they can cause staining issues if they’ve been dyed, not to mention the rubber rubbing off on clothes and shoes. Some brands have this issue more so than others, however.

They aren’t very aesthetically pleasing either, so playgrounds that are concerned with the way they look may find that rubber mulch doesn’t suit their needs very well. However, they are among the safest playground surfaces on the market because of their absorbency. Finally, they help protect the environment by providing a new use for tires that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

Wood Chips

Pros: inexpensive to install, aesthetically pleasing, provide good fall protection, compact for accessibility.

Cons: require a lot of upkeep and maintenance, compact over time, could present a choking hazard to small children.

Wood chips is a cheaper alternative to playground surfacing that require regular maintenance and cleaning.

Another option for playgrounds is wood chips, and it’s one of the most common playground surfaces in the United States for a variety of reasons. Wood chips are significantly less expensive to first purchase and install than rubber mulch, but this savings can be lost over time because of the amount they compact. They’re also very safe with high fall ratings.

They’re also often kicked out of the playground by playing children, which means they need to be constantly raked back in or replaced. Wood chips can also present a choking hazard to smaller children because of their size and shape, as well as give kids splinters on occasion. However, wood chips can be highly accessible due to how well they compact together.

Another note that applies to all loose-fill materials is their propensity to hide animal waste, sharp objects, or other things that might be dangerous to children. As a result, they need to be regularly raked and maintained to make sure there’s nothing buried in them that might harm kids. They also naturally break down so they need to be replaced every few years.

Pea Pebbles

Pros: cheap, easy to install, provide good fall protection, fits in with landscaping easily

Cons: require constant maintenance and upkeep, can hide sharp objects or animal waste, can be a choking hazard for small children, not handicapped accessible

Although pea gravel are inexpensive to use, they may hide dangerous objects underneath.

Pea pebbles are another common loose-fill playground surface material that have good fall protection and is inexpensive and simple to install. They have a variety of disadvantages, though, that prevent them from becoming too widespread.

Just like with wood chips, they can easily become displaced by kids playing on the playground and need to be raked back into place.

They can compact over time, requiring frequent refills as well. They can also hide sharp objects or animal waste, so it’s necessary to check them regularly for things that could be dangerous to kids. After compacting, pea pebbles can offer less safety from falls, so they need new layers added on too.

Gravel is among the least handicapped-accessible material out there, as kids may not be able to navigate it as easily as wood chips or a unitary material. As such, compliance with the ADA may be more difficult to achieve with gravel. It can also be a choking hazard for very small children.

Sand

Pros: cheap, easy to install, aesthetically pleasing

Cons: high amount of displacement, thick layer required for high fall protection, can hide small or dangerous objects, gets everywhere

Similarly to pea pebbles, sand is also a cheap option but can hide sharp objects dangerous for the kids.

Sand is another popular choice for playground surfaces due to its low initial costs. However, like pea gravel, sand can have some real disadvantages that should make playground designers think twice before they use it for their playground.

Sand will naturally compact over time, so it requires regular maintenance to keep it safe. It also is highly displaceable, so it’ll need to be refilled regularly. It does fit in well with a variety of landscaping, but, like pea gravel, it can hide dangerous objects under the surface that means it needs to be checked regularly for safety reasons.

Sand is relatively safe as a surface, and kids running and falling on it aren’t in danger of incurring any significant injuries. However, it’s not very accessible because kids in wheelchairs might have a hard time rolling across it, so that’s another potential concern.

Artificial Turf

Pros: very safe, mid to low maintenance requirements, long durability, natural look, ADA compliant

Cons: very high initial costs

Although artificial grass is an expensive surface material, it provides superb protection and lasts for a longer period.

Finally, a relative newcomer to the world of playground surfaces is artificial turf. Unfortunately, it’s high upfront costs are prohibitive to many playground projects, but if it can be budgeted for, artificial turf can provide a number of great benefits.

Turf has a high fall safety rating if installed properly since it has a layer of rubber underneath that can cushion falls. It’s also soft and very durable, so it doesn’t need as much maintenance as loose-fill surfaces and doesn’t break down over time. It can have a very long life as a result.

Turf is also ADA compliant because of how flat and easy to traverse it can be, and it’s got a natural look that’s also customizable due to the colors and patterns it can include. Turf can be a great option for many different playgrounds due to all these reasons, as long as they can cover the high installation costs. 

Closing Thoughts

There are a variety of safe playground surfaces that should be considered, and there’s no rule saying a playground needs to stick to just one type of surface. Certain areas of the playground may benefit from one type of material, while other areas may use another type. Hopefully, this article gave you an idea of how to find the safest option for your playground.

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