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.