The playground architect’s options for playground surface materials have grown drastically in the last decade. From sand to rubber playground matting—there’s just more options. And as we all know, protective surfacing is one of the most important measures to prevent serious injuries arising from accidental falls. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), about 200,000 children are hospitalized from playground-related injuries each year, and about 60% of these injuries are from falls to the ground.
What Material is Used in Playgrounds?
Asphalt, concrete, sand, wood mulch, rubber mulch, pour-in-place rubber, and rubber tiles are all potential playground surface materials. However, not all playground surface materials are created equal. Some are better than others in some respects. And others are just flat-out undesirable.
What is an Appropriate Playground Surfacing Material?
Despite the many playground surface materials, the appropriate playground surfacing material is usually rubber. Although your situation might change what material best fits you, rubber’s durability, shock-absorption, slip-resistance, and water-resistance make rubber hard to beat as the appropriate playground surfacing material. The following list examines multiple playground surface options and the differences between each one:
Hard Surfaces: When schools and parks first started installing playground equipment, they gave little thought to the playground surface materials that they used. Soft outdoor flooring wasn’t a primary consideration. Oftentimes, play structures were placed directly over concrete or grass without any sort of barrier in between. Especially if they are carrying a taller playset, hard surfaces are particularly dangerous because—if a child falls off the equipment—there’s no safety mat to dampen the impact of the fall. According to the CPSC, falls on asphalt or concrete can result in critical head injuries and—in some cases—death. Nowadays, it’s rare—but not unheard of—for some playgrounds to still have hard surfaces. In any case, play-area matting is necessary.
Sand: : Many schools and parks utilize sand for their play areas. With a loose-fill material like sand, it’s important to have enough sand—enough depth—to properly prevent serious injuries from falls. With a six-inch depth of sand, the highest fall it can cushion is a fall from five-feet-high. Loose-fill surfaces tend to diminish over time, and saturation causes the sand to compact and harden, diminishing its injury-prevention qualities. Plus, foreign—potentially dangerous—objects can bury into the sand, staying out of sight until one unlucky child steps in the wrong place. Sand is one of the least effective loose-fill playground surface options.
Wood Mulch: Wood chips are also a common material found in outdoor play flooring. Wood mulch is generally more effective than sand at cushioning the blow of an accidental fall. Wood-mulch playground-flooring at a six-inch depth can cushion the impact of a fall from heights of up to seven feet. Furthermore, because wood mulch comes in larger pieces than sand, it doesn’t clump together and harden in response to moisture. However, because wood is an organic material, it’s vulnerable to mold and bacteria. And like sand, wood mulch also disguises foreign objects thrown into or left at the playground because, at the end of the day, it’s a loose-fill surfacing. Plus, wood mulch isn’t very comfortable to walk on—let alone run on.
Rubber Mulch: Rubber mulch lies somewhere in between okay and great. Rubber mulch usually consists of recycled tire buffing and nuggets. These crumbs are produced from discarded tires. Workers remove the steel bands attached to the tires, then they grind the tires to mulch. Rubber mulch is one example of the ways in which recycled rubber for playgrounds is an eco-friendly choice that keeps playgrounds safer and landfills emptier. Like wood, rubber mulch will remain loose regardless of temperature or weather. Because rubber is inorganic, rubber mulch is better than wood mulch at combating the growth of fungi and bacteria. Rubber is also naturally shock-absorbent, so rubber mulch is better than wood mulch at cushioning the impacts of falling objects. However, because rubber mulch is a loose-fill material, it can still conceal foreign objects, a risk which can have unpredictable—potentially devastating—consequences. And like other loose-fill materials, rubber mulch is difficult to clean—all those bits and pieces harbor shocking amounts of filth. Finally, it’s a loose-fill surface, so it isn’t wheelchair accessible. Don’t get me wrong. Rubber is a phenomenal material. It’s just that, at the conceptual level, loose-fill surfaces have so many flaws that even being made from a material as great as rubber can’t surmount their problems.
Pour-in-Place Rubber: Pour-in-place rubber is a permanent playground soft surface that’s highly customizable and effective. But, be warned, this is one of the most expensive playground surface materials. This surfacing is poured in two layers. The first layer is a base layer of Styrene Butadiene Rubber (SBR) and a polyurethane binder. The top layer, Ethylene Propylene Diane Monomer (EPDM), is a UV-ray- and ozone-resistant rubber playmat surface that will ensure that the rubber remains intact. With this flooring, the playgrounds are fall-height protected depending on the thickness of the flooring. In general, one can expect fall-height ratings of at least six feet. This material, however, is hard to replace once damaged. And eventually, it will get damaged. Pour-in-place rubber is one of the more luxurious playground surface materials out there.
Rubber Tiles: Rubber mats for playground surfacing is one of the best of all the playground surface options. Rubber tiles, like rubber mulch, utilize recycled rubber for playgrounds, usually making them highly affordable. Rubber playground matting also accords with CPSC’s playground safety standards, ensuring that children who fall from a play structure are much less likely to sustain serious injuries. Furthermore, rubber naturally resists slipperiness, so any child running around on a rubber playground tile has a minimized risk of slipping. Rubber mats for playground flooring, unlike loose-fill materials, will not hide any dangerous objects because any dropped items stay visible on top of the mats. Furthermore, rubber matting for playgrounds is also DIY-friendly, requiring no technical expertise for you to install yourself. Most tiles are interlocking, so connecting them is akin to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. This form of rubber playground matting is also very easy to clean because tiles can be rinsed with a hose or swept with a mop. Because tiles are modular, they are individually replaceable. This means that, if a portion of your play-ground surfacing is damaged, all you need to do is replace the tiles which were damaged. Compared to repairing pour-in-place rubber, fixing rubber tiles is a breeze.
What is the Best Playground Surface Material?
Now, for the most pressing question—what is the best playground surface material? Of all the playground surface materials rubber is generally best. Rubber is naturally durable, shock-absorbent, slip-resistant, and water-resistant, making it the perfect material for most play-ground matting applications. With such an array of playground surface options, it may seem difficult to decide which playground surface materials are best. While every option has its pros and cons, rubber playground matting—by far—is one of the most safe, affordable, and DIY-friendly options.
Playground Surface Materials: What Are Your Options?