Supplement Feature - September 2008
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Playing It Safe

A Closer Look at Playground Surfaces

By Hayli Morrison


Many parks and recreation departments, however, find it a struggle to determine just how cost-effective higher-end options like turf and poured-in-place really are.

"We are seeing bigger, better and brighter playgrounds—but they're more expensive," Wolfson said. "It's the general public and fundraising that helps provide the means for the safer surfacing."

With Amarillo's city parks, Hatcher said the higher-end surfaces are considered "very cost-prohibitive." While the city is hardly alone in its budget constraints, there are certainly several benefits to investing in a higher-end surfacing product.

Turf and poured-in-place do tend to be longer-lasting and more durable, thus requiring lower maintenance and somewhat justifying the cost. Turf is typically "hands-free," with no maintenance requirements for the first two years, according to Thayer. He added that any defects occurring after installation are generally minor and able to be repaired by any maintenance crew.

Turf and poured-in-place both typically have a guaranteed life of at least eight years, and the latter of the two can actually last up to 15 years. In either case, total life expectancy depends upon the amount of use and the intensity of sunlight and other natural elements to which they are exposed.

"As park planners and architects think through it more and more, they are coming to the conclusion that a bound surface is the best option so there's a fixed solution in place," Dobmeier said. "With wood chips or pea gravel, that material will begin to disappear where it's needed most because it's been kicked around, and there's not enough thickness to meet safety requirements. Unless you have a maintenance program that's unrealistic, it's not going to meet requirements.

"Each planner of a playground has before them the challenge of going with a bound system for a little more money up front, versus spending half the money up front, but not really solving the problem," he added. "Basically, they've said, 'We're going to spend less money up front, but for 10 years we're going to have to deal with adding more sand, wood chips or pea gravel.' With the cost of materials and labor, you could make the argument that it actually costs more over the life of the system."

Safe Heights

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, specific types of loose-fill surfaces offer different degrees of safety at various depths:

Fall Height in Feet From Which a Life-Threatening Head Injury Would Not Be Expected:

Type of Material 6" Depth 9" Depth 12" Depth
Double-Shredded Bark Mulch61011
Wood Chips679
Fine Sand559
Fine Gravel6710

For more information on safe surfaces and fall heights as published by the CPSC, visit