playground with slideSurfacing is the most important decision you will make for your playspace.The right surfacing helps to ensure your playspace is safe and accessible. More than 70% of playground injuries are due to falls on unsafe surfaces.* Investing in a safe surface will go a long way toward creating a safe playspace overall. An accessible surface is also the first step toward creating a playspace everyone can enjoy (children must be able to get to your structures to play on them).

Playground surfacing materials vary widely in terms of safety, accessibility, cost, and maintenance requirements. The following provides basic information to get you started.

What to know about surfaces

New technology has made the surfaces available for playspaces safer and more accessible than ever before. In addition to basing your decision on safety and accessibility, plan for how your playspace will be funded and maintained. If you will not have access to or money for ongoing maintenance, you should consider a surface material that won't need to be raked every week to stay safe and accessible.

Surfacing options Safety Accessibility Initial Cost Annual Cost Maintenance
Rubber Poured-in-Place ++ ADA compliant +++ $$$$$$$$+ $ periodic
Accessible Turf ++ or + ADA compliant +++ $$$$$ $ periodic
Rubber Mats and Tiles + ADA compliant ++ $$$$$$$$ $ periodic
Bonded Wood Chips + ADA compliant + $$$$ $ periodic
Engineered Wood Chips + ADA compliant $ $$$ weekly
Shredded Rubber + ADA compliant $$ $$$ weekly
Sand or Pea Gravel UNSAFE under play structures --- --- --- ---
Asphalt or Cement UNSAFE under play structures --- --- --- ---
Grass and Soil UNSAFE under play structures --- --- --- ---

$ = $1 per square foot**

  • Rubber poured-in-place is the most accessible and safest playground surface. It absorbs falls from the greatest height and wheelchairs can easily roll over it. Poured-in-place requires little ongoing maintenance (check for cracks on a regular basis) but is initially expensive to install.
  • Accessible turf installed over cushioned, properly draining bases is available from Zeager Brothers (RecGrass and RecRug), ForeverLawn (Playground Grass), Envylawn, and other manufacturers. Some of these surfaces do not absorb falls from as high as poured-in-place, so check carefully with the manufacturer and consider less fall-friendly turf for under shorter structures. Turf is less expensive than poured-in-place and easier to install.
  • Interlocked rubber mats and tiles are accessible and safe when installed over a cushioned base; however, the edges can be prone to curling. This surface costs about the same, initially, as poured-in-place and requires little maintenance.
  • Bonded wood chips are adhered to make the surface accessible to people using mobility devices. This surfacing material is less expensive than poured-in-place but costlier than regular wood chips. Bonded wood chips also require less routine maintenance than engineered wood chips or shredded rubber. Methods for bonding wood chips vary; some methods have proven to be more effective over the long-term than others at sustaining accessible surfaces.***
  • Engineered wood chips and shredded rubber are safe and ADA compliant under play structures, as long as you rake regularly to keep an even, deep distribution. People using wheelchairs will find them inaccessible unless they are raked at least weekly. These surfaces are less costly to install than poured-in-place but weekly maintenance can make them quite expensive over time. One school district estimated they spent an average of $6,000 per year per school maintaining playground wood chips.

Standards to guide your decision

art playground

Four main organizations publish standards for playground surfacing. You should be familiar with all of them. Playground manufacturers and other people who have built playgrounds can often help you understand how the various standards apply to your playspace.

  • The federal government issues standards to ensure accessibility, through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines for Play Areas.
  • The federal government's Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) publishes standards for surface safety and accessibility.
  • The ASTM (formerly American Society for Testing and Materials) publishes standards for surface safety and accessibility.
  • Your state government will typically have standards in place relevant to safety and/or accessibility.
Standard Applies to...
ADA Accessibility, primarily, and also considers safety
CPSC #1005 Safety, primarily, and also considers accessibility
ASTM F2223-04 Overall guide to applying the ASTM playground surface standards
ASTM F1292-04 Minimum performance requirement of impact attenuation of surfacing
ASTM F1951-99 Determining accessibility of surface systems under and around playground equipment
ASTM F2075-04 Minimum characteristics for engineered wood fiber as safety surface under and around playground equipment
ASTM F1487-05 Consumer safety performance specifications for playground equipment
State-by-state Safety and/or accessibility

Different types of play

Different surfaces can accommodate, signify, and enhance various types of play. Poured-in-place rubber provides a great surface for riding and bouncing toys, and is also safer under climbing structures.Consider diverse pathway surfaces to demarcate play areas. Provide a smooth transition between distinct surfaces so wheelchairs can easily maneuver between spaces.

Tactile experiences

Surfacing material can provide tactile stimulation to children, enhancing the play experience. Children like and benefit from playing with various surfacing under their feet. Consider adding textures like rumble strips and undulations to the concrete or asphalt surfaces. Also, the transitions from one type of surfacing to another can signify different areas of the playspace.

(Photos courtesy of eibe and Kompan)