Last Modified: April 1, 2024

Play Surface

Alternatives, Safety and Functionality for Kids

Coloured rubber tile play surface

By Ben Parrot - Landscape Gardener & Amateur Geologist

Overview

Understanding the important role that playground safety surfacing plays in the safety and enjoyment of recreational areas and children’s playgrounds might not occur too many people. The significance of a well designed play surface can best be understood through the outcomes of constant use overtime.

Key Takeaways

  • Safe Surfacing: Play surfaces main purposes are safety and minimising accidents
  • Diverse Choices: From rubber play area surfaces to au naturale, there are many surfaces to choose from.
  • Maintenance: Even the most durable rubber surfaces require occasional check-ups and maintenance.
  • Informed Decisions: Understanding the benefits and limitations of each surface type is essential.
Girl playing on a swing image by 雲騰 李 from

Image by 雲騰 李 from Pixabay

Playground Safety

The Importance of Playground Safety Surfacing

While it would be unusual to find anyone who did not believe that playground safety was an issue of vital importance, there is more to it than just reducing the chances of injury, and the severity, in the case of a fall. A well designed play area encourages children to explore their imagination, can help give them more confidence, and at the same time provide protections against potential hazards.

Also, while golf courses aren't traditional play areas, their surface requirements are distinctive. They need materials that can withstand the impact absorbing the wear of golf spikes and the movement of golf carts while preserving the greens' impeccable condition.

Critical Components of Safety

There is more to a safe playground and just good quality playground equipment. That’s where the place surface comes into calculations. While the way a service looks can add to the overall experience, the practical aspects such as impact absorption from critical fall heights, grip and drainage in wet weather, are crucial factors to consider when designing a safe play area.

Colourful rubber play surface in a park. Jpg

Types Of Safety Surfaces For Play Areas

Understanding Impact Absorption

Impact absorption is a modern day innovation which can significantly reduce the amount of injuries and how serious they are, especially involving falls from heights. Using a play surface which can reduce the impact is what makes rubber chipping surfaces such an integral part of playgrounds today.

Wet Pour Rubber Surface For Playground Safety

Wet pour is a popular choice for playgrounds and recreation areas. It consists of two layers bonded together. It can be a number of different materials, most common are rubber Crumb and rubber mulch. They are bound by a polyurethane resin on site. This mixture offers maximum durability and longevity.

Bonded rubber safety flooring around a swing. Jpg

Loose Fill Products

Loose fill products such as engineered wood fibre (EWF) or bark chippings are other choices. While there are some advantages to using only natural materials, the use of rubber bark or rubber mulch as playground fill offers an alternative that is harder wearing and provides the critical fall height protection that wood or bark chips just cannot. We cover EWF in more detail, below.

Unitary Surfaces

Rubber tiles, rubber, mats, and artificial turf. Have there costs and benefits, with rubber tiles coming out as the best alternative, where level base requirements are met, usually a well packed sub base for concrete. Artificial turf is a poor option for safety protection in the case of falls, but it can be quite versatile in areas where there is no playground equipment, or heights to fall from.

Swings above blue bonded rubber. Jpg

The Role of Polyurethane Resin

A rubber crumb play surface bound with polyurethane resin is what makes wet pour surfacing. The resin provides extra resilience against weather, wear and tear, and helping to keep the shape and longevity of the surface.

Need to work out how much loose fill rubber mulch your play area project needs? Try our free chippings calculator.

Protective Surfaces and Their Categories

There are many types of play services out there, from grass and sand right through to rubber, chippings and wet pour surfaces. Every type has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a look at them next.

Wet Pour Playground Safety Surfacing

Whilst the safety profile for surfaces utilising wet pour rubber are exceptional, especially from critical fall heights, there are some disadvantages, which may make the surfaces unsuitable for certain circumstances. For one thing, rubber safety surfaces are very expensive, initially. There are also concerns about the potential toxicity from leachate which can perturb some people.

On the plus side, the added protection that the soft and bouncy layers provide are second to none, reducing the chance of injuries and the severity of injuries, especially from falls. Also, although the initial outlay can be very high, the longevity and durability of the surfaces mean that they will continue to perform the job required for more than 10 years, and with almost no maintenance or upkeep costs.

Child jumping between tractor tyres in a playground image by kev from

Image by Kev from Pixabay

Rubber Mulch and Its Advantages

There is also the option of using a range of loose fill rubber chippings, such as playground rubber mulch, or rubber bark. While the cost of these options is less to install and can be done by a DIY, the long-term durability is not quite as impressive. This surface will also require more regular maintenance to ensure the levels are kept even and the minimum depth maintained so that critical fall height safety is insured.

Certainly, budget can be a limiting factor for the installation of any play surface, but it might not be the only one. For example, if the preference is for a natural surface that does not carry any potential health risks of a rubber surfacing, then alternatives, such as EWF, pea gravel, or sand come into play.

Close up of rubber chippings

Engineered Wood Fibre (EWF)

Engineered wood fibre is a popular choice of playground surfacing, with reportedly 75% of all American playgrounds using it. The advantages are in the high impact absorbing qualities and relative firm, slip resistance it can provide when installed correctly. It can be quite suited to playground surfaces for home play areas.

EWF is far more economical to install than rubber chippings, and can still provide accessibility, where pea gravel and sand surfaces cannot. Further, you will not have to worry about the potential of any harmful chemicals leaching into the environment and affecting your children if you are using properly certified, EWF.

Close up of hardwood chippings

Pea Gravel & Sand

Pea gravel is a charming but less versatile solution, rarely used in modern playgrounds today. The fact that it is a natural stone has its advantages, but the downsides are that children with mobility issues are unable to participate, and also that the absorption of impact is not as high as other, more suitable options.

Likewise, sand is a very cheap surface, which can provide a reasonable level of protection and a fun experience, but it shares the same downsides as pea gravel.

Sand in a natural outdoor play area

Rubber Tiles For Playground Safety Flooring

Both outdoor safety play mats and rubber tiles are very common alternative rubber surfaces. Also known as rubber bricks for playgrounds, they are easy to install and can provide very good protection for play surfaces.

Installation is at DIY level, and with their interlocking designs, they are like large safety, jigsaw puzzles. By interchanging different colours of tiles, you can also create some interesting and fun patterns with the rubber play surface.

Square shaped protective rubber floor tiles under a see saw image by dieter staab from

Image by Dieter Staab from Pixabay

Play Equipment and Its Safety Features

Moving Equipment and Safety Concerns

Equipment like swings or climbing frames demands surfaces of ground that provide enhanced impact attenuation. Given the dynamic nature of such equipment, the ground below should be designed to minimize potential injuries.

Essential Features in Static Equipment

For non-moving equipment like benches or static climbers, line height and stability is key. Surfaces laid like sand or rubber should not only cushion falls but also create and offer stability, ensuring that the equipment remains firmly anchored.

Playing hopskotch in a playground image by 422737 from

Image by 422737 from Pixabay

Wet Pour Detailed Analysis

A Two Layered System

The soft, vibrant coloured top layer of wet pour surfacing is often what's visible, but underneath lies a well-constructed base layer. This structure, combining rubber granules and polyurethane resin, offers the surface its unique balance of flexibility, strength, and safety.

Maintenance of Wet Pour

When a play area's wet pour, rubber chip flooring, starts to show signs of wear they require occasional maintenance to maintain them. Wet pour surfaces, despite their durability, require occasional inspections and cleaning to remove debris, moss or spillages which could affect the traction under foot.

1toy in a childrens play area. Jpg

Wet Pour Versus Other Surfaces

Rubber wet pour, when compared to alternatives, offers unmatched safety and durability. Along with its flexibility to be laid in various shapes and designs, it can be both a functional and visually fun choice.

Summary

Selecting the optimal play area and surface demands a careful evaluation of safety features, durability, and maintenance requirements. Whether you choose wet pour, engineered wood fibre, or another alternative, understanding their unique pros and cons can help to create the type of safe havens you want for you children to explore and enjoy.

1public play area for children with rubber surface

FAQs

What is a playground surface called?

Termed as playground flooring safety surfacing, this material is spread underneath and around play equipment to provide cushioning and diminish injury risks. 

What is the rubber stuff in playgrounds called?

A play area surfaces rubber flooring, often referred to as wet pour rubber or safety surfacing, is a blend of rubber crumb and polyurethane resin.

What is the best surface for a school playground?

The ideal surface is contingent on the school's specific needs and budgetary constraints. However, a rubberised play surface is optimal around play equipment due to their protective properties.

Rubber mulch vs wood mulch playground surfaces?

When it comes to rubber mulch vs wood, an alternative to rubber mulch is EWF. At the pinnacle of safety is engineered wood fibre (EWF), offering excellent impact absorption and is non-toxic, but it does demand regular maintenance. Wet pour and rubber mulch are commonly advocated for due to their superior safety and durability, despite the downsides explained above.

What is wet pour rubber?

A rubber surface for play area flooring that combines rubber granules and polyurethane resin, wet pour rubber is applied in liquid form and solidifies to create a continuous, shock-absorbing surface that provides maximum fall safety.

There are many types of rubber chippings available for your next play surface project. Check out them out!

About the author 

Ben Parrot is a landscape gardener and amateur geologist. He is the founder of Outdoor Aggregates, with the mission to create the first encyclopaedia for decorative aggregates. From natural stone through to decorative bark, these aggregates are critical to garden and landscape design, universally.

The problem: There isn't any place where all the different types of decorative landscaping materials and construction aggregates can be found, nor are the specifications of each type readily available. So, enriched by his extensive experience, and inspired by the timeless elegance and raw beauty of stone and rock, etched by nature's artistry over millennia, Outdoor Aggregates was born.