Designing a safe playground starts from the ground up. It’s important to have safe playground equipment, but the surface under the equipment also makes a big difference. The ground covering impacts how accessible and safe the playground is, as well as how enjoyable it is for children to play.
There are many possible safety surfaces for playgrounds, each with their individual pros and cons. There are two main groups of surface coverings: loose-fill and unitary.
Loose-fill coverings are made of smaller pieces, such as engineered wood fiber or rubber mulch, that are installed to create an even surface made of loose pieces. These types of surfaces are typically less expensive to install but require more maintenance and refills.
Unitary surfaces are comprised of singular materials installed into level surface. These surfaces are more expensive to install but tend to require less maintenance in the long run.
There are a number of factors to consider when choosing a playground surface, including price, accessibility, and maintenance. Some materials are less expensive to install but don’t provide as much accessibility and tend to have more involved maintenance.
On the other hand, some surface materials have a high up-front cost but don’t require as much maintenance over time and provide a consistently safe environment.
When designing a commercial playground, here are the five best types of safety surfaces. Any of these surfaces are a great option to put in a playground area. The choice is then based on what is best for the individual park and project.
Poured-In-Place, also called poured rubber or PIP, is a smooth layer of rubber poured to cover the entire surface evenly. Poured rubber is a 2-layer system that includes a shock absorbing layer of rubber buffings, covered by a top finish layer of granular particles all mixed with binder. This creates a uniformly smooth surface that ages well.
Because of its even surface, poured rubber allows for great accessibility and impact attenuation. It is a popular option for playgrounds because it provides a safe covering for all children and for nearly every activity.
Poured rubber is also long-lasting and requires minimal maintenance.
Poured rubber can be customized to match the colors and style of any playground.
It is the most customizable surface option because it can be poured with graphics into nearly any pattern or design and add to the creativity and imagination of the playground.
The biggest disadvantage of poured rubber is the price, as it tends to be one of the most expensive playground surfacing options. Over time, poured rubber can also wear down as it is exposed to the elements and start to crack or flake, although this usually takes many years of heavy use to occur.
Turf is common surface for sports fields, but is also a safe unitary surface for playgrounds with installed with an impact attenuating pad.
Turf has the appearance of real grass, but it is much easier to maintain and safe for children to play on under elevated equipment.
With turf, the playground gets a touch of greenery without having to fertilize, mow, or water the grass.
Turf can absorb the fall height rating of play equipment because there is a cushion layer underneath the grass-like layer.
Turf is also UV resistant, which means the color is resistant to fading over time.
Turf is much more durable than real grass and can withstand years of serious play.
A downfall of turf is the price, as it can be expensive to install.
Some turf contains quartzite or rubber granuales called infill between the plastic blades of grass to prevent flattening of the blades over time. Infill material can displace over time and make it more challenging for children to run and play on surfaces when it may spill over.
Turf with infill shouldn’t be used in playgrounds for infants and toddlers. There are non-infill options available, however, non-infill turf can look less natural and flatten over time.
Rubber tile is a popular option for playgrounds because it is customizable and safe. Rubber tiles are made of bonded rubber in pre-formed square tiles, typically 2 feet by 2 feet.
Like other types of tile, the individual pieces are then placed on the ground in a pattern with interlocking sides to join them together.
A main advantage of rubber tile is that it is very accessible. Because it creates an even and smooth surface, it can easily be maneuvered by children of all ability levels, including children in wheelchairs.
Rubber tiles come in different degrees of thickness to meet the fall height attenuation of the specific play equipment.
Rubber tile also comes in a variety of colors and can be used to create fun and bright patterns.
On the other hand, rubber tile tends to be more expensive to install. It is best to install tiles over a concrete base for stability and to reduce shifting over time.
Even over concrete, tiles can start to separate and peel at the edges with age, which can create a tripping hazard. However, because the surface is made of tiles, if one area starts to erode, just those tiles can be replaced, which makes repairs easier and can actually decrease replacement costs in the long run.
Rubber tiles require a medium amount of upkeep, basically requiring removal of dirt from in between the tiles and to regularly sweep and clean and surface. Animals don’t find rubber tile appealing, which minimizes the chance of bugs or other vermin staying on the playground and causing damage.
Rubber mulch has the shape and texture of wood chips but is made of rubber.
Most commonly, rubber mulch is made of recycled tires, making it the most eco-friendly playground surface.
There are many advantages to rubber mulch, including its mid-range cost and relatively low maintenance. Compared to similar surfaces like loose wood chips, rubber mulch doesn’t decompose over time.
Rubber mulch is also available in a wide variety of colors to match the playground equipment.
A major downfall of rubber mulch, as with all loose-fill surfaces, is that rubber mulch can be tracked off the playground or end up in children’s shoes.
Frequent monitoring of the mulch depth, and replenishment, is needed to ensure proper fall height attenuation of the surfacing material. Rubber mulch can also limit accessibility for some children.
Engineered Wood Fiber
Engineered wood fiber, or EWF, is a loose covering made of manufactured wood. EWF is different from traditional woodchips because it doesn’t contain bark, twigs, or other debris and goes through a softening process in manufacture.
Engineered wood fiber is the best of both worlds—the safest of loose-fill coverings while still being affordable.
EWF is an especially popular choice for natural playgrounds because it creates a natural look.
EWF is also a good shock absorber and is easy to install. It stays in place better than many other loose-fill options, such as rubber mulch or sand, although it is subject to displacement especially in high-traffic areas, such as under swings or at the base of slides.
Maintenance is required for wood fiber surfacing by raking displaced material back into place, monitoring the depth of the wood fiber surfacing, and replenishing the depth of the material as needed to accommodate the fall heights of the equipment.
One downfall is that EWF, like all loose-fill coverings, can limit the accessibility of the playground. The surface isn’t completely smooth, which can make it difficult for children in wheelchairs to maneuver, as well as children who experience challenges in walking. However, engineered wood fiber surfacing is an ADA compliant surfacing option when compacted properly.
Why Not Real Grass?
Although real grass may seem like it provides a good play surface for children, it is actually not a recommended playground surface.
Grass doesn’t have the same shock absorption properties as other synthetic coverings, which means that if a child falls on grass, they could be much more severely injured than if they fall on rubber or synthetic turf.
Natural grass also requires lots of maintenance and can quickly wear down. After being used by children, grass can develop ruts, which creates a tripping hazard for kids running around the playground.
When ruts develop, the grass is worn down and children are playing on hard dirt. The uneven surface of natural grass also reduces its accessibility for children of all ability levels.
Considering the safety issues as well as the maintenance time and costs required to properly care for natural grass, investing in another playground surface is not only safer but can be more economical over time.
Choosing the surface of a playground is a major decision. These five popular playground surfaces are the most common and provide a variety of options.
Using any of these options will create a safe and welcoming playground for years to come. Go Play Playgrounds is an expert in creating safe and fun playgrounds—contact us today for help with your safe playground surface.