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Choosing The Right Playground Surfacing

Congratulations! All your hard work fundraising has paid off, and you can finally design the playground of your dreams. You’ve picked out a wide range of equipment, including climbers, slides, swings, and spinners. But now, it’s time to pick your playground’s surfacing. It may seem like an easy choice, but there’s actually more to it than you might think.

But, not to worry, there are a handful of key questions that will help you cut through the clutter. What age groups will be using the playground? How tall is your playground’s equipment? How much accessibility do you need? Once you know all the answers, it will be easy to narrow down which type of surfacing you’ll need.

It’s important to know that there’s no “good” or “bad” when it comes to playground surfacing. Each type has its own unique benefits and applications. Ultimately, the type of surfacing you pick depends on the specific goals of your park. However, there are a few common factors you should consider when making your selection. Here’s what you should keep in mind.

Aerial shot of Golden Isles Park playground and basketball court in Hallandale Beach, FL.

What Should I Consider?

Fall Protection

Without a doubt, protective surfacing is the most important factor of playground safety. It’s the #1 way to prevent serious injury when slips, trips, and falls occur. Installing a playground on grass or concrete is no longer considered safe, and could be life-threatening. For this reason, you must install surfacing with enough cushioning to brace the impact of a child’s fall.

How much surfacing you need depends on your playground’s height, age group, and industry standards. Our specialists will guide you to select a surfacing that meets, or exceeds, all of these requirements. Additionally, it’s also crucial to protect against choking hazards. If your playground is targeted towards children aged 5 and under, refrain from using loose fill surfacing.

Two children jumping off of a Tikes Peak Climber at Summit Park in Mountainside, NJ.

Wheelchair Accessibility

When designing an inclusive playground, one of the most important decisions is the type of surfacing you choose. Unitary surfacing, such as pour-in-place rubber, rubber tiles, and artificial turf, is the only type of surfacing that’s 100% accessible. If your playground includes a lot of freestanding activities, unitary surfacing should be used to make them accessible to wheelchairs and mobility devices.

If you plan to incorporate ramps and transfer stations in your playground, you can use loose fill surfacing instead. While not fully accessible, loose fill surfacing can be used in conjunction with other inclusive elements to reduce cost. Additionally, pour-in-place rubber or concrete paths can be poured to make play activities accessible from the ground level.

Child and caretaker exiting an inclusive Wheelchair Ramp at Hickory Lane Park in Jackson, WI.

Maintenance Level

Playground surfacing can be classified into two main categories: unitary surfacing and loose fill surfacing. Loose fill surfacing, like sand, pea gravel, and EWF, are typically less expensive. However, with the hustle and bustle of play, they get displaced very easily. This means that your playground must be regularly topped up for maximum protection.

But, not everyone has access to a groundskeeper. And, it can take awhile before you notice any irregularities with your park’s surfacing. If this sounds like it could be a hassle, consider installing a unitary surfacing instead. This type of surfacing does cost more, but the low maintenance and peace of mind is well worth it.

Installation of an Extreme Generation Playground at Pogadl Park in Sylvan Lake, AB.

What Types of Surfacing Are There?

1. Pour in Place (PIP) Rubber

By and large, PIP rubber is the longest lasting surfacing option on the market. Not only is its elasticity and slip-resistance great for playgrounds, but also spray parks and athletic courts. We’re proud to say that our PIP rubber is IPEMA certified for 10 ft. fall heights – putting your mind at ease while your child plays.

While PIP rubber requires significantly more upfront costs, it has the lowest maintenance cost out of any surfacing. This makes it a popular choice for high-use areas. Cracks and damage to the surfacing are rare, but can be easily repaired if they do occur. PIP rubber is also fully ADA compliant, and can be embedded with a variety of colours and patterns.

Golden Isles Park in Hallandale Beach, FL with PIP rubber surfacing.
Northwestern Mutual Community Park in Milwaukee, WI with multi-coloured PIP rubber surfacing.

2. Rubber Tiles

Much like PIP rubber, rubber tiles provide better accessibility and shock absorption than loose fill surfacing. In addition, they only need periodic sweeps of dirt and debris to stay clean. This typically results in lower maintenance costs over time. However, rubber tiles are still on the higher end of price, and require professional installation and setup.

Rubber tiles are also a good choice for custom and themed playgrounds. Customers can order their tiles in a variety of colours and create designated play areas. For example, a nautical themed playground may have blue tiles for the ocean and brown tiles for the beach. Lastly, for those with visual impairments, bright-coloured tiles can be used to outline a clear path.

Ste Genevieve Community Center in Ste Genevieve, MO with farm and ship themed playgrounds.

3. Artificial Turf

In recent years, more and more playgrounds have started using artificial turf. And for good reason. This synthetic material has the same natural look as sod, but eliminates much of the maintenance. No longer will you need to mow and trim beneath your playground equipment. Plus, artificial turf is free from allergens and is anti-microbial right from the start.

Another advantage to using artificial turf is its accessibility. Children in wheelchairs and mobility devices will be able to navigate the playground with no issues. For children with sensory processing disorders, the soft and comfortable feel of artificial turf is very calming. Last but not least, artificial turf dries extremely fast after a rainfall – better than any other material.

Karns Lions Club playground in Knoxville, TN with artificial turf surfacing.
Freedom Playground in Smyrna, TN with artificial turf surfacing.

4. Pea Gravel

If you’re looking for a budget-friendly option, pea gravel is a great choice. Its easy installation allows you to save money and use volunteer help. And when compared to sand and EWF, it provides better drainage, keeping your playground dry after it rains. If that’s not enough, pea gravel doesn’t easily support microbial growth, making it a more sanitary alternative.

However, while pea gravel is inexpensive to buy, it does come with higher maintenance costs. Foreign objects will get buried, requiring your playground to be regularly raked and inspected. Furthermore, pea gravel can be easily consumed by younger children, posing a risk to their safety. Finally, despite its ADA compliance, pea gravel is not the ideal choice for wheelchairs and mobility devices.

Curtis Field Park in Redwood Meadows, AB with pea gravel surfacing.

5. Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF)

EWF is best known for its uniform shape and size, which provides dependable fall protection. It’s also free from pesticides and contaminants, which can’t be said for traditional wood chips. Aside from its low cost and easy installation, EWF is also an attractive surfacing option. With little fading or darkening over time, our EWF will retain its natural look for years.

Better yet, our EWF is sourced from pre-consumer recovered content. This helps reduce the amount of waste going to the landfill. However, while EWF meets the minimum ADA requirements, it is difficult to push a wheelchair through. Therefore, if you’re planning on using EWF, it’s a good idea to install ramps and transfer stations as well.

Child balancing on an Angle Log at Weaver Park in Thomaston, GA.
Group of children climbing on a Nu-Edge Crawl Log at Carl Thornton Park in Santa Ana, CA.

6. Sand

When most people think of playground surfacing, their mind goes to sand. After all, it’s a playground staple that many of us grew up with. Like EWF, sand is great for parks with a natural theme that includes lots of logs and rocks. And, it’s one of the cheapest options out there that still provides good fall protection.

But, while sand has many advantages, these do come at a cost. Firstly, sand hides insects and other pests, and gets easily tracked inside by shoes, clothes, and hair. Secondly, unlike EWF and pea gravel, sand is not ADA compliant. With this in mind, we highly recommend using sand in addition to a unitary surfacing, like PIP rubber.

Child digging in a sand box at John Venezia Park in Colorado Springs, CO.

Will I Need a Border?

Loose fill surfacing, such as sand, pea gravel, and EWF, require a border around the playground. This is done to keep the surfacing contained and maintain proper fall depths. Installing a border also makes your park more cleanly, since the surfacing won’t be spilling out all over the place. Let’s quickly go over a few options that are available.

Wood timbers are a cost-effective option, and a good aesthetic choice for playgrounds with a natural theme. However, they aren’t a permanent solution, and will need to be replaced a few times throughout your park’s lifetime. On the other hand, our KidTimber border is a longer-lasting alternative, and are made from 100% recycled plastic.

Those looking for a permanent solution can consider concrete borders. While more expensive, concrete is a great investment for larger parks with multiple amenities. For playgrounds that neighbour a spray park or picnic area, concrete can be used to link the two activities together. In addition, concrete borders can be seamlessly integrated with the pads normally poured for park furniture.

Little Tikes Commercial playground with Kid Timber border panels and EWF surfacing.
Don Forni Park in Geneva, IL with EWF surfacing and concrete border.