Outdoor Playground Surface Options

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Outdoor playground surfaces are a book-size topic. You probably already know that and you have no clue which one to choose. First of all, I will do my best to quickly compare different solutions. Then I am going to help you with making a decision. I hope this post will be a relief to your headache.

The safety of our children is a priority. Most important is to make the playground a secure place. A good surface absorbs the energy of a child’s fall, it`s not toxic, easy in maintenance. At the same time, it should be affordable.

You should also know that I don`t represent any firm in this post. The goal of that article is to keep our children safe on a playground.

A little bit of theory

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission:

“In recent years, it is estimated that there were more than 200,000 injuries annually on public playgrounds across the country that required emergency room treatment.

The surfacing under and around playground equipment is one of the most important factors in reducing
the likelihood of life-threatening head injuries. A fall onto a shock absorbing surface is less likely to cause a
serious head injury than a fall onto a hard surface. However, some injuries from falls, including broken limbs, may occur no matter what playground surfacing material is used.

Appropriate Surfacing

Inappropriate Surfacing

• Any material tested to ASTM F1292, including unitary surfaces, engineered wood fiber, etc. • Asphalt
• Pea gravel • Carpet
• Sand • Concrete
• Shredded/recycled rubber mulch • Dirt
• Wood mulch (not CCA-treated) • Grass
• Wood chips • CCA treated wood mulch

Loose-fill surface should be avoided for playgrounds intended for toddlers.”

– Public Playground Safety Handbook by U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

The most affordable choice is organic and inorganic loose fills like sand, pea gravel, mulch. Fit-in-place surfaces like rubber tiles, poured-in-place rubber surfaces, and artificial grass, cost more and have their set of pros and cons.

Quick Pros and Cons


I think the lawn is good for small swing sets. For bigger ones, it is better to consider softer surface to cushion any falls.  Grass isn’t safe if you have anything over a few feet. You need a shock absorbing surface.

Often people don`t want a lawn because it takes a lot to keep it up. An opinion of people who have a lawn under their playground is that it doesn`t need as much maintenance as you may think.

“We have had ours for almost 3 years and it gets tons of use. It has bare spots under the swings (where feet get dragged) and at the very bottom of the slide, but that is it.”

– J-Max, www.mothering.com/


  • Natural
  • Looks great
  • Feeling of running around barefoot is priceless 😉
  • Can grow on each terrain
  • Perfect for toddlers


  • Difficult to keep grass growing
  • Does not absorb the energy of a child`s fall


I personally think sand is a good solution, but there is an issue that it can become a toilet for local cats. On the other hand, I spent my childhood on a sand playground. I don`t remember it being dirty. If you go for sand, please take into consideration where it comes from. Read the label. Some brands may contain dangerous substances. The best choice is beach sand and river sand. Don`t buy supermarket sand that is made of crushed rock or crystalline silica.  It must be impact absorbing sand for playgrounds.


Remember that sand requires a barrier around the playground to keep everything in place. Sand together with wood chips are the cheapest options.


  •  Natural.
  •  Low to medium cost.
  •  Not flammable.
  •  Some types of sand offer great impact absorption qualities.


  • Tend to be thrown around a playground. Sticks to shoes and ends up everywhere in your garden and house.
  • Can become a toilet for local cats
  • Dangerous objects can be not visible in sand for example broken glass

Wood chips

Chunks of shredded wood.

As many opinions as people. Some say wood chips may cause really bad splinters. Other say that they have a mulch playground and have never had a child hurt on it. Maybe it is a little bit dirtier than rubber but… be honest… children love dirt 🙂

Watch out for products with sharp edges, that may cause injuries and are so fine that they can be inhaled.

Think about playground edging. It will keep mulch inside. Plastic is safer than stone edging.

Most comments on the internet say, go for wood chips or pea gravel.


  • Fairly cheap, probably cheapest option
  • Feels more natural than rubber
  • Children enjoy playing with them
  • Good shock absorbency


  • Needs to be replaced every 2 – 3 years 
  • Flammable
  • Create places for bugs to hide in
  • Bad splinters
  • Affected by rain, high humidity, and freezing temperatures

Pea Gravel

Pea Gravel is a very popular and strong choice. Still, you need to consider a few things. Most important is the age of children playing on your playground. There is a risk that really small children may put it in their mouth. For toddlers, it can be a choking hazard.

“Our friends did the ‘pea gravel’! It is attractive, doesn’t get muddy, and it is FUN itself!!”

– WuWei, mothering.com/forum

Most comments on the internet say, that wood chips or pea gravel are the best choices for a playground surface.


  • High shock absorbency
  • Children usually like pea gravel
  • Low cost
  • Easy to buy and install
  • Less attractive to animals than sand.
  • Doesn’t contain toxic materials.
  • Weed prevention
  • Low maintenance cost
  • Can also be reused as the floor for an outdoor casual table
  • Good drainage


  • Children like to throw gravel all around
  • Potential choking hazard

Fibar or Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF)

It is made from 100 % virgin wood fiber. Fibar isn`t made from used old wood, that may contain chemicals, dangerous to our children. Generally, you know that it was produced especially for a playground and doesn’t contain any risky additives. EWF absorbs the energy of a child’s fall. It is natural, slip resistant and provides a springy cushion.

EWF`s  fall attenuation is better than with regular wood chips. Though this surface is not bonded, it is wheelchair accessible. It needs good drainage.

It is one of the most popular low costs choices for sustainable playground surfaces and I would personally go for it. 


  • Fairly Durable
  • Stays in place better than any other loose fill surface
  • Does not decompose as quickly as mulch
  • Not-flammable
  • Not chemically treated and natural
  •  No splinters problem
  •  Wheelchair accessible


  • Can hide sharp objects, insects and animal excrements
  • Microbial growth when wet
  • Can be affected by rain, high humidity, and freezing temperatures

Rubber Surfaces

Rubber surfaces are made from old car tires and contain zinc, benzene, carbon black and lead, among other toxic substances. Car tires shred into playground flooring are classified as hazardous waste”

“There has been increasing evidence that raises concerns about the safety of recycled tire material used on playground surfaces. While tire rubber includes natural rubber from rubber trees, it also contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), According to the EPA, breathing air contaminated with PAHs may increase a person’s chance of developing cancer.”

– Nyedra W. Booker, PharmD, MPH and Stephanie Fox-Rawlings, PhD

Here you can get some more specific information about that kind of rubber toxicity:


Are Poured in Place Playground Surfaces Safe?


Environment and Human Health, INC.

I was told that rubber is non-toxic… but I’m not convinced.  In fact, those small rubbers may be doing more harm than good. Some of you will choose rubber and that`s fine of course. We all know what is good for ourselves. It is just important to be aware of the potential risk.

Poured in Place Rubber

It is a rubber poured just like concrete, that creates a solid base across the entire playground. This kind of surface probably meets the highest safety standards for fall injuries.

Rubber can heat up badly when exposed to the sun. So if you live in areas prone to high-temperature, rubber is probably not the best choice.

Actually, it can be one of the best choices for those who need a wheelchair accessible area.

It is the most expensive option, followed by synthetic turf and other rubber based solutions.


  • Shock Absorbency
  • Hygiene
  • Minimal Compression
  • Weed Prevention
  • Low maintenance costs
  • Wheelchair accessible


  • Gets hot during the summer
  • Really expensive
  •  Requires professional installation
  •  Flammable
  • I was told that rubber is non-toxic… but I’m not convinced
  • Life expectancy – 10 years under average use

Artificial Grass for Playgrounds + Synthetic Turf

Artificial grass is made of Polyethylene, Polypropylene, nylon, or its combination. It looks like natural grass and it is coved with synthetic turf. If your children play football on artificial fields you know exactly what it is. There are small rubbers your child brings home in their shoes after the game.


  • High shock absorbency
  • No maintenance costs
  • Wheelchair accessible
  • Good drainage
  • Not flammable
  • Resilient – can withstand heavy traffic
  • Life expectancy – 15-20 years under average use


  • Really expensive
  • Becomes really warm during summer days
  • Can melt when placed close to highly reflective windows

I recommend you read these articles

about Synthetic Rubber Surfaces by stopcancer.org 

Correlation between Synthetic Turf and cancer

Finally, it doesn`t matter what kind of material you use if you don’t follow relative depths requirements. In fact, you can use the best, most expensive material but if it is too shallow it may cause injuries. Just make sure it is deep enough.

There is a good chart of the relative depths required here

What is Right for You? Conclusion.

Of course, the final decision is entirely up to you. Each and every surface mentioned above has something to offer. And there is not one good answer to the question: which surface is the best for a playground. It depends on your living area, temperatures in summer, budget, the age of your children and so on.

I would personally go with pea gravel or wood chips. If you are still not sure and have some questions, please leave a comment below.

Think about playground edging. It will keep mulch inside. Plastic is safer than the stone edging. Select a material you can and will maintain. Lay material deep enough – crucial.



Public Playground Safety Handbook by U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

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