Are you building or upgrading a playground in your community? Or are you responsible for maintaining a play area at your school, civic center, or some other place where kids gather to work off that endless supply of energy they seem to have?
Either way, you have probably already spent a significant amount of time researching the types of playground equipment available and gathering quotes from various suppliers. While you are at it, do not overlook the importance of the playground surfacing that will go around your new equipment! Your ability to decrease the risk and liability of serious injuries related to falls depends on the kind of safety surface material you choose.
There are several playground surface options for you to consider. They include “unitary” playground surfaces (which include seamless, uniform surfaces such as poured-in-place rubber surfacing, rubber tiles, and bonded rubber mulch) and “loose-fill” playground surfacing (like engineered wood fiber or rubber mulch).
How you choose your playground surfacing depends on the purpose of your playground, how many kids you expect to use it, the type of equipment you purchase, and your budget.
Unitary Playground Surfacing
Unitary playground surfaces are smooth and uniform. They include poured-in-place rubber (“PIP”) surfacing, bonded rubber mulch, and rubber tiles. Unitary surfacing options can be more expensive than loose-fill when evaluating initial up-front costs. However, the long-term maintenance costs and costs over time are lower.
A few key things to remember about PIP and other unitary options:
- Poured-in-place systems like No Fault’s are made with recycled post-industrial EPDM (Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer) rubber and polyurethane. Because the rubber and urethane components are mixed and applied on site, it’s easy to add school colors, logos, or geometric shapes into the surface.
- Many playground designers like the consistency of having large areas (or even the entire playground) uniformly covered with a unitary surface.
- Poured-in-place and other unitary surfaces are easy to clean and require little to no maintenance after installation.
- Unitary rubber surfacing is a good choice for accessible playgrounds, since wheelchairs roll easily on the smooth surface.
Loose-Fill Playground Surfacing
Loose-fill materials are cost-effective, traditional playground surfacing favorites because of their shock-absorbing properties (when installed and maintained at appropriate depths). They include products like engineered wood fiber and chips, recycled shredded rubber, sand, and pea gravel.
A few key things to remember about loose-fill options:
- Most shredded rubber comes from used tires and is a great choice if you want to use recycled products in your playground environment.
- Loose-fill surfacing materials get kicked away from under the swings and from the bottom of the slide, which means someone has to rake it back in place or (eventually) buy new material to replace it.
- Loose-fill options like sand and pea gravel can become less effective for fall protection due to environmental factors such as rain and cold.
- These options can be used by animals (especially cats) as a litter box. They can also conceal other unwanted things (bottle tops, cigarette butts, etc.).
Comparing the Safety of Unitary and Loose-Fill Options
A 2000 study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrated the differences between loose-fill options. The study measured the “attenuation performance” of loose-fill playground surface materials (“attenuation performance” meaning how well something can stop the impact or force of another).
The study showed that pea gravel had the worst performance, making it a poor choice for playground surfacing. There was not much of a difference in the safety benefits of sand, wood fibers, and wood chips. The problem with these options is that they shift as children run and play, compromising the depth required at critical impact areas like swings, slides, and climbers.
Among all loose-fill playground options, rubber mulch was the best performer. You can see information about No Fault’s loose-fill rubber mulch here.
Poured-in-place surfaces and other unitary products can be installed over asphalt, concrete, or other compacted sub-base aggregate. The thickness can be modified to comply with critical fall heights, defined as the “maximum height from which a life-threatening head injury would not be expected to occur.”
Loose-fill rubber and poured-in-place rubber are more durable than wood chips or fibers because they won’t degrade over time. All options mentioned can give you the safety and protection you need, but the loose-fill options will require constant maintenance and testing to ensure effectiveness.
We hope this has cleared up any confusion you may have had about safety surfacing. However, if you still find that you have more questions than answers, fill out our “request a quote” form here and give us as much information as you can about your project; we’ll give you a call and talk with you about PIP rubber surfacing, rubber tiles, and other options you have for your playground project.