Feature Article - July/August 2005
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A Complete Guide to Sports Surfaces and Flooring

Sure Footing

By Kyle Ryan


The young'uns have their own surfacing needs, especially when it comes to playgrounds. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 200,000 kids ages 14 and younger are treated for playground-related injuries in emergency rooms every year. About 45 percent of those injuries are severe, such as fractures, internal injuries, concussions, dislocations and even amputations.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a mind-numbing set of rules specifying shock-absorbency, height restrictions, surfacing materials and more. But they are critical to follow—and not just out of human kindness. These injuries cost about a billion dollars annually.

The CPSC breaks surfacing materials into two groups: unitary and loose-fill. Unitary materials are rubber mats or poured in place surfacing. Loose-fill materials absorb shock when deep enough, and they include sand, gravel, shredded wood and recycled-rubber nuggets.

ORGANIC LOOSE MATERIAL: wood chips, mulch, bark

  • INSTALLATION/MAINTENANCE: It needs a barrier, and it needs to have good drainage beneath it. It also will require periodic addition of more of the material and constant supervision to remove foreign materials.
  • ADVANTAGES: Less expensive, easy to install, drains relatively easily, not abrasive and readily available
  • DISADVANTAGES: Environmental/weather factors can decrease its cushioning ability. Kids and weather will displace the material, which means it will need to be replaced. It also decomposes and compacts over time, and it conceals trash and animal excrement. Youngsters also can swallow the stuff, and when it's wet, microbial growth can be a problem.


  • INSTALLATION/MAINTENANCE: It shouldn't be installed over existing hard surfaces, and it also needs a good drainage system. Because it's loose material, it also needs a containment system. It requires constant maintenance (leveling, grading, sifting, raking) to make sure it stays at the appropriate depth and to remove foreign matter.
  • ADVANTAGES: Cheap, easy to install, doesn't pulverize. Microbial growth isn't really an issue, and it's readily available.
  • DISADVANTAGES: Same as organic loose material. Also, when sand is wet, its cushioning ability suffers. Animals love to use it as their personal bathrooms.

UNITARY SYNTHETIC MATERIAL: rubber mats, tiles, poured-in-place polyurethane

  • INSTALLATION/MAINTENANCE: Fairly easy on all accounts. Loose material, such as rubber nuggets, needs some kind of containment, though.
  • ADVANTAGES: Easily cleaned, consistent shock-absorbency. If it's a mat or tile, it won't easily be displaced or hide foreign objects. Flat surfaces also are more universally accessible.
  • DISADVANTAGES: The initial cost is more expensive than other options. If the materials are thin, they will need some shock-absorbing material underneath them. Some are susceptible to damage from frost.

Information provided by Consumer Product Safety Commission