Look Out Below!

Understand Your Options on Playground Safety Surfacing


If you're old enough, you can likely remember a lot of playgrounds that wouldn't pass the safety test today. Since the Consumer Product Safety Commission first introduced standards to govern playground safety in 1981, playground equipment and the surfaces we install beneath it have evolved to provide ever greater protection for children to engage in the kinds of exploration, risk-taking and active play that playgrounds encourage.

Many of us can remember play equipment installed above asphalt (like the playground at my elementary school) or grass (like that at my local park)—both considered big no-no's nowadays.

The fact is, the majority of injuries that occur on the playgrounds—more than 70%—involve falls, and most of those fall injuries occur when children fall onto unsafe surfaces. Providing adequate surfacing, and maintaining it over time to ensure it is continuing to provide the protection you expect, is crucial to prevent unnecessary injuries.

Know What's What

The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls suggests four steps to ensure kids are protected from falls by the surfacing you provide:


1. CHOOSE THE RIGHT MATERIALS. The wrong materials are many of those we remember from our own youth: asphalt, cement, dirt or concrete. Appropriate materials include both loose-fill materials like engineered wood fiber or rubber mulch, as well as unitary surfaces like rubber tiles or poured-in-place surfacing.


2. UNDERSTAND HOW EQUIPMENT HEIGHT AFFECTS SAFETY: According to the NPPS website, equipment that's higher than 5 feet more than doubles the probability of injury. But that doesn't mean you can't install soaring slides and towers. Just be sure to work with established playground manufacturers who understand how to engineer safety into such equipment. Also, understand that how tall the equipment is may have an impact on the surfacing you choose. Discuss your surfacing choice with your playground manufacturer to be sure you're on the right track.

3. MAINTAIN THE RIGHT DEPTH FOR LOOSE FILL: There is no hard and fast rule here, as different types of loose-fill materials will require different depths, and the height of the equipment will have an impact as well. The CPSC Handbook for Public Playground Safety can provide some guidance based on material and fall height. Talk with the provider of your surfacing as well, to be sure you understand its requirements.



Before you get started on making your surfacing selection, you should understand your options. While budget will largely drive your decision, your choice of surfacing type should take into account a number of factors that can have an impact on the safety of that surface over time, including your maintenance capabilities and the impact of local weather patterns. Other factors to consider while making your decision include accessibility requirements and aesthetics.



Broadly speaking, playground safety surfacing is divided into two groups: loose-fill and unitary surfacing.

Loose-fill material includes such options as rubber mulch, engineered wood fiber (EWF), playground sand, pea gravel and other bulk materials. These types of materials cost less up front, but require more regular maintenance in order to ensure the surface continues to adhere to safety and ADA guidelines.

Unitary surfaces include poured-in-place rubber (PIP), bond-in-place rubber, interlocking resilient tiles and synthetic turf with a protective pad installed beneath. Unitary surfacing is well known to cost more up front, but over the long term, its low maintenance costs and durability extend that budget. Other benefits of unitary surfacing include its accessibility, as well as the broad range of aesthetic choices that can be made when you have the ability to add shapes and designs while choosing from a rainbow of colors.

Loose-Fill Surfacing

Loose-fill surfacing is probably the most common choice for playground safety surfacing, and with good reason. "Loose-fill safety surfaces such as engineered wood fiber continue to be the most cost-effective, all-natural and most readily available surfacing, while also maintaining some of the best fall protection available," said Scott Merchlinski, CPSI, sales and marketing manager for a Middletown, Pa.-based supplier of surfacing for playgrounds, trails and more.

What's more, he said, you don't need experts on hand to install loose-fill surfacing, and these types of surface "… can easily maintain their fall attenuation properties over a longer period of time by periodic topping off."

According to the NPPS website, loose fill is more likely to erode

or become displaced, which makes it important to stay on top of maintenance, maintaining the proper depth of the surfacing to ensure it continues to cushion falls and prevent injuries. The required depth will vary depending on the type of surfacing material used, as well as the fall height of the equipment.

The organization states that it has conducted field testing on wooden loose-fill surfacing, including engineered wood fiber, wood chips and wood mulch, as well as sand and pea gravel, and made the following determinations:

>> "Wood products are the most widely used type of loose-fill material, and require the most shallow depth of material to protect against injuries from a given fall height, including the best performance at fall heights above 9 feet." In addition, wood is less affected by erosion than sand and pea gravel.

>> "Sand was found to require the most surface depth to cushion falls, while pea gravel displayed the greatest tendency to disperse and yield inconsistent surface depths." In addition, performance decreased once falls were 9 feet or more.

When is loose-fill not ideal?

"Loose-fill surfaces, like engineered wood fiber, are not usually suggested for play areas for those under 2 years of age, due to the possibility of placing it in their mouths," Merchlinski said. "Outside of the age restriction, almost all other factors, environmental or equipment, can be designed for loose-fill surfacing. Additional products such as wear mats and ADA ramps can be added to improve accessibility where needed."


"In order to maintain the best performance out of any surface, maintenance is always a factor," Merchlinski said. "Surfaces like engineered wood fiber or loose-fill materials are no different. Kids at play are very aggressive of the surfaces they play on. They drag their feet under slides. They come out of slides and push loose fill away. They kick their feet while standing at ground-level play panels. All of these high-wear areas create additional areas of maintenance. These areas will need to be raked back in or leveled off. Keeping these area filled in maintains fall safety and keeps puddles from forming."

Wear mats help address the problem of high-traffic areas, where loose-fill material gets dispersed and displaced more quickly than the rest of the playground. Areas like slide runouts, the ground around spinners and the surface beneath swings tend to see more displacement than others. You should stay on top of such problems by regularly raking the surfacing material back into place, but adding a wear mat is another solution to provide additional protection for these spots.

When Rapho Township, Manheim, Pa., wanted to add a zip line to its playground, they wanted to be sure they provided a surface beneath with good impact attenuation, so their first choice was engineered wood fiber.

"The problem," Merchlinski said, "was a lean staff that was already stretched thin, so maintaining the area directly below the zip line was going to be a problem if they were to use loose-fill surfacing."

Wear mats weren't a solution, he added, because "normal topical mats were either not long enough or would displace and end up causing more problems than a solution."

Instead, he said, his company suggested a new product that's been in development. "It's unique in that it is built to the same thickness as the surrounding loose-fill surface so it never sinks, never displaces and always maintains a safe surface to fall onto. The system is easy to install and requires no special tools or equipment."

Unitary Surfaces

Unitary surfacing like poured-in-place or interlocking rubber tiles may have a higher cost at the beginning, but it also brings many unique benefits to the mix.

"A unitary surface," said Carmen Soileau, marketing and sales support for a manufacturer of playground and sport surfaces based in Baton Rouge, La., "will provide excellent fall height protection and safety, as well as the capability of adding in-laid designs to enhance any theme our customer might want.

"The surface is also seamless, porous and slip-resistant," she added. "We use it for both playgrounds and splash pads and water play areas."

The higher up-front cost of unitary surfacing is somewhat balanced by the much lower maintenance cost over the life of the playground.

If you're on a tight budget, bonded rubber mulch is the least expensive unitary option.


It is a one-layered system made from shredded recycled rubber bonded together with a polyurethane binder. "The common belief is that bonded rubber is a lot less expensive than poured-in-place rubber," said Darren Toomey, founder of a safety surfacing company based in Driftwood, Texas. "But when you run the numbers, this is only true for 3-inch thicknesses and less. When you compare the two systems at 3.5 inches thick, the cost is the same. I would rather give my customers a poured-in-place system because it is more durable than bonded rubber mulch, so they save money in the long run with a longer-lasting system."

Rubber tiles are another option. "One of the benefits to rubber tiles is that each tile is made in a factory by machines, so human error and environmental challenges are eliminated for the tiles themselves," said Misty Toomey, with the same Driftwood, Texas, company. "However, because they are manufactured in a plant, they come in pieces that have a predetermined thickness, making it difficult to change the surface thickness throughout a playground under equipment requiring different fall heights. This can cause playground owners to overspend on thicker tiles than they need in some areas, unnecessarily increasing cost due to the additional materials." Design capacity is also more limited, as with poured-in-place you are not limited to squares and right angles.

Poured-in-place is a two-layer system that is mixed and installed on site over a stable surface such as concrete, asphalt or highly compacted stone. The first layer is made from recycled rubber mesh, or crumb rubber in some cases. The top layer is made of manmade colored granules that can be combined to make designs or provide a speckled effect. Both layers are mixed with moisture-curing polyurethane binder at different content percentages. The thickness of the base layer can be varied to correspond to requirements for the different fall heights of the equipment.

The surface is hand-troweled, which means a margin of human error, and weather can have an impact over time, as well. "To get a good-quality PIP surface that lasts, using an experienced install crew is just as important as using quality materials," Toomey said. "The crew must be able to handle different atmospheric conditions, as well as other job-site challenges. We are often the last contractor on the job, so our crews must be knowledgeable about AS™ standards and all aspects of playground construction.

"It's a technical and time-

sensitive install process using expensive raw materials, so it must be done right the first time," Toomey added. "If it isn't installed correctly, there can be a multitude of problems. For instance, even though a job can look great when it's done, without an adequate amount of binder in the mix, the surface can deteriorate more quickly. This is another reason why it is important to use a reputable company that has been in business for a while and offers a warranty."


Soileau said that while all of the surfacing materials her company provides are great for fall height protection and keeping children safe, their poured-in-place rubber surface is the top of the line. "Even though it can be more expensive than the rest of our surfaces, it's made to last from five to 10 years, and besides being safe, I love the fact that we can add in-laid designs and bright, beautiful colors to match anyone's theme or to add some flair to the playground. It makes the playground bright, cheery and more fun for children." The company's in-house designers can work with customers to create a custom design that lives up to their dreams.

Though far less common, artificial turf with a pad for resiliency beneath, is another unitary surface option. It's natural looking and considered environmentally friendly since it doesn't need to be watered or fertilized. The downside is that it can get very hot, and requires some maintenance to keep it looking good.

Whether tile, poured-in-place or synthetic turf, all unitary surfaces require little maintenance while offering ADA compliance and consistent fall protection. They also require a greater initial investment and need to be professionally installed.

Maple Park in Barco, N.C., got a playground makeover, thanks to Soileau's company and a partner playground equipment manufacturer. Jack Huffman of Site Concepts worked with Currituck County's Park & Recreation Director, Jason Weeks, to design the park playground more than a year before the project became a reality.

As they were reaching the final design phases of the playground, Weeks expressed a preference for poured-in-place rubber surfacing if it could fit his budget. After tweaking the design a bit, they included a PIP surface for slightly less than the allocated budget.

Huffman was pleased with the crew who installed the surfacing on-site, describing them as "very well prepared for a professional installation with flawless execution.

"I personally met the crew the morning the materials were delivered," he added. "I personally watched an impressive display of an efficient crew in operation, and within two hours, these guys were making final site evaluations and laying the resilient layer on the playground."

Final Thoughts

Whichever surface you choose, be sure to talk to the manufacturer about how the surface has performed against AS™ standard test methods.

"Ask to see actual test results, not just certificates," Merchlinski said. "We encourage playground owners to obtain independent testing of their playground safety surfacing after installation, in order to verify that the surface is performing as expected. And lastly, we would always recommend working with a reputable playground equipment dealer." RM