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What are the Different Types of Playground Surfaces?

By Cathy Rogers
Updated: May 17, 2024

The safest playground surfaces are typically made of materials that are shock-absorbing and are regularly inspected and maintained. Loose fill materials such as shredded rubber, sand, or wood fiber or chips are some of the safest. Surfaces made with recycled rubber and PVC materials, such as shredded tires, provide suitable cushioning and are also considered environmentally friendly.

Other playground surfaces that absorb-shock and therefore rank as acceptable include rubber mats or fine or medium gravel of suitable depth. Materials that are not recommended include concrete, asphalt, grass or soil. The problem with grass or soil lies in the fact that, over time, it becomes hard and packed.

Loose fill materials must be maintained at a sufficient depth and should not be installed over any hard surface, such as asphalt or concrete. The depth varies according to the material and to the height of the equipment. One advantage of a loose fill is that it relatively inexpensive and easy to find.

Most loose materials do tend to become compressed over time, and it is also not easy to spot dangerous materials, such as glass or nails, in them. They require frequent maintenance and replacement, except in the case of recycled rubber mulch. Pea gravel and sand are also acceptable loose fill materials.

Sand will not decompose and generally does not mold, but it is messy and is affected by humidity and rain. Pea gravel does not attract animals or insects, but it is difficult to walk on and is also affected by weather. It can cause a falling hazard itself when displaced onto another surface.

Other options in playground surfaces include rubber mats, rubber tiles, or poured-in-place surfaces. Although initially more expensive than loose fill surfaces, they require little maintenance. These surfaces are suitable for wheelchairs and do not attract mold, fungus, animals, or insects. They also do not require containment and, therefore, displacement is not a problem.

Surface maintenance is extremely important. It is imperative for groundskeepers to check for sections of a mat that are pulled up, because a hard surface underneath could be exposed. If bark or other loose material spreads outside of the area under the equipment, the concrete footings of the equipment could cause other injuries. The surfaces must regularly be cleared of any foreign objects, like broken glass or other sharp items.

In the U.S., both the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the American Society for Testing and Materials issue guidelines for playground safety, including information on playground surfaces. Even home playgrounds need a proper surface. The most common playground injuries include fractures of the arm or hands and cuts or bumps to the head and face.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By seag47 — On Dec 11, 2012

Sand is my favorite type of background playground surface. I remember playing in a sandbox when I was little, and I loved the feel of the soft grains around my legs and feet.

I feel a bit like I'm at the beach when I walk on playground sand. I get a mini-vacation without leaving the yard!

By Perdido — On Dec 11, 2012

@Oceana – Rubber playground surfaces made from shredded mulch don't look like tire material at all. In fact, it is hard to tell them apart from real wooden mulch.

The playground at my park looks like shredded cedar. I really thought that the park maintenance crew had spread out red wood chips until I read about rubber mulch being popular in playgrounds.

Also, it isn't toxic at all. You don't have to worry about your child's safety.

By Oceana — On Dec 10, 2012

So, does the rubber mulch used in playgrounds actually look like bits of shredded black tire? I've never seen the stuff, but it doesn't sound like something I'd want my kid to play around in!

By orangey03 — On Dec 10, 2012

The outdoor playground at my school back in the eighties had a surface of red sand. This stuff was very prevalent in Mississippi, so I suspect that the workers just scraped the grass off and revealed the red sand beneath.

It was a hard surface, and this stuff was difficult to get out of clothes. My school didn't have the largest budget, so they had to settle in a lot of ways.

I'm pretty sure that improvements have been made to the playground since those days. It may even be illegal now to have such a rough surface!

By anon114025 — On Sep 27, 2010

What about the black carbon soot that is releases all over the kids' skin and shoes and clothes? Is it carcinogenic?

By ralamb — On May 04, 2009

What about artificial grass? I think it is very long lasting and it doesn't tend to matte down. Any thoughts of this surface versus the rubber mattes?

By nasturtium — On Mar 31, 2008

When I was a kid, we used to have tan bark in the playgrounds and that always hurt a lot to land in, especially with the splinters. Now I'm a teacher, and the kids have a springy rubber surface which not only doesn't hurt to fall on but in fact feels really good to walk on. It's definitely an improvement!

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