Feature Article - July/August 2004
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Special Supplement:
Recreation Management’s Complete Guide to Sports Surfaces and Flooring

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Kid stuff

For children's play areas, indoors or out, surfaces must meet some of the most rigorous requirements in the sport and recreation industry. Whatever goes underneath playground equipment must meet standards for impact attenuation, cushioning, fall protection and accessibility to prevent injuries and make play available to a wide range of children. To gauge what works best for your facilities, take into account your preference, performance needs, budget and cash flow: Material, installation, maintenance and upkeep costs vary dramatically.

A mix of different surfaces can work well, especially when balancing accessibility and budget. Among the choices:

  • Sand and pea gravel
  • These cost the least and can be stored in bulk for easy refilling but do not meet accessibility standards and require regular refills.

  • Wood
  • Wood chips and their direct descendant, engineered wood fiber, constitute the vast bulk of outdoor safety surfaces. Wood chips do not meet ADA guidelines for accessibility and require regular refilling, but for facilities with a forestry program that generates its own wood chips, the price is right. Engineered wood fiber, which makes up about 70 percent of all play surfaces, meets ADA guidelines (although wheelchair users may require some extra effort to get through it) and works especially well for fall zones.

  • Recycled-rubber nuggets
  • This eco-friendly choice sometimes can be subsidized by tire reclamation programs. They also can be used in a dual system where loose nuggets get poured over a grid to eliminate kick-out wear.

  • Rubber tiles
  • Synthetic or natural rubber interlocking tiles come in varying thicknesses according to fall-height needs. They can add a blast of color to a facility and require little maintenance but cost more initially.

  • Poured-in-place rubber
  • Similar to the systems used for running tracks, field houses and tennis courts, rubber or synthetic liquids are poured over a resilient base. This provides the greatest level of accessibility and the least maintenance but also costs the most.

    Synthetic outdoor materials are making inroads. Rubberized sheet goods, poured-in-place products and synthetic rubber tiles can provide a cushioned surface, with rubber shavings, shredded rubber or foam underneath. These synthetic materials can also be laid underneath traditional materials like wood chips or sand to prevent erosion and provide extra cushioning in high-impact or heavy-traffic areas.