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When it comes to playground surface options, it matters which material you choose. Some surfaces offer superior playground fall protection, while other materials are simply unsafe. You want to install a playground surface material that can cushion a fall and fit into your budget.

Falls onto playground surfaces are the number one reason children get sent to the emergency room. While a scraped knee might not be concerning, some fall-related injuries are serious. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 20,000 children are treated for a playground-related traumatic brain injury (TBI) every year.

A properly installed shock-absorbing surface is vital to creating a safe playground. The chances of being injured on an impact-absorbing surface are less than half compared to non-impact-absorbing surfaces. Kids should feel safe and happy while they play, and a quality surface material is a crucial part of that.

Choosing the appropriate playground surface for your playground is not as difficult as it might seem. However, you will need to consider certain factors such as your budget, the size of your playground and your community’s vision. When it comes down to it, safety should always be the priority when choosing a surface. 

At Zeager Bros., Inc. we’ve been helping playground owners choose the best playground surface for decades. If you’re wondering which type of playground surface material to choose, let us help you get started. We’ll show you the different types of play surfaces for playgrounds and break down each one to explore the pros and cons. By the time you’re done reading this post, you’ll have a better idea of the perfect surface for you and the children who can’t wait to play at your playground.

Playground Surface Options

There are two main types of playground surface materials — unitary and loose-fill surfaces. All types of playground surfaces should be tested and comply with ASTM F1292 — the standard for impact attenuation. We’ll show you what each category is about, including the advantages and disadvantages.

  1. Loose-Fill: Pea gravel, sand, loose rill rubber (LFR), and engineered wood fiber (EWF) are all examples of loose-fill materials. These materials are natural (except LFR) and do not contain chemicals or binders to hold them together. Generally, it’s recommended to install and maintain a 12-inch thickness with all loose fill surface materials because of natural compaction and scattering.
  2. Unitary: Unitary surfaces are bound elements formed into tiles or rolled products such as turf. These surfaces include rubber tiles, artificial turf, poured-in-place rubber (PIP) or carpeting products. Unitary surfaces may be made of recycled tires, nylon or other synthetic elements.

Loose-Fill vs. Unitary for Outdoor Playground Surfaces

Loose-fill and unitary surfaces can both be a safe choice, so it’s easy to get stuck choosing between the two. You might want to speak with an expert, so you know exactly what you’re getting.

Otherwise, here are a few pros and cons to aid your decision. Remember, you also have the option of combining both loose-fill and unitary surfaces in your playground if that would suit your needs.

A) Learn More About Your Loose-Fill Playground Surface Options

Loose-Fill Pros

What are the benefits of loose-fill surfaces? Loose-fill playground surfaces are generally affordable, easy to install, offer good drainage and typically provide exceptional protection for falls.

Also, loose-fill materials like EWF blend beautifully into natural surroundings and complement eco-friendly playgrounds. For example, it’s easy to imagine EWF pathways and ground space in a playground surrounded by trees. Unlike landscaping mulch, EWF is made from virgin wood chips so it’s much cleaner and designed for safety.

Loose-Fill Cons

The disadvantage of loose-fill surfaces is they require more maintenance since they often get kicked away from frequently used areas. As a result, loose-fill surfaces must be raked, replenished and compacted regularly to ensure safety and accessibility, which also might increase maintenance costs. However, you can install wear mats, which are available in a range of different sizes, to help prevent loose-fill displacement. 

Maintenance is still required even with wear mats, but the mats will help reduce the time needed to fill in surface materials in high use playground areas. They also help areas remain safe and accessible between maintenance checks.

Some manufacturers have certified mats to function with specific fall heights. Before you install wear mats, ask your vendor for performance results and make sure the mats will not decrease the safety of a play area. Maintenance workers should still perform regular inspections to ensure the mat is smooth and even with the ground and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

We also recommend installing wear mats not only under swings and at slide exits, but also beneath equipment such as transition platforms and play panels to help children with disabilities access all play areas with ease.

Types of Loose-Fill Playground Surface Materials

There are only a few main types of loose-fill playground surfaces — for example, EWF, pea gravel and sand. However, even though these are considered safe playground surface materials, there are still reasons to review each one carefully so you can choose the playground floor material that will work best for your playground. Let’s look at each type so you can see the differences.

1. EWF

EWF is by far the safest loose-fill material for a playground. Our EWF is all-natural, knits together to compact and make a smooth, accessible surface, and is more affordable than unitary surfaces. EWF also offers excellent impact absorption, is easy to install and stays in place better than other loose-fill materials, making it a popular choice. EWF requires regular maintenance, especially in high-use areas like beneath swings where tiny feet often kick loose-fill materials away. It’s also important to make sure you keep EWF at the right depth — never less than 9 inches — and that the location offers good drainage to maximize the lifespan of EWF.


Facility personnel can install, repair and maintain EWF, and no professional assistance is required. Wear mats can help prevent displacement, and you can easily install wear mats under swings, slides, climbers or other high-use areas.

2. Pea Gravel

Pea gravel is inexpensive, easy to install and typically does not appeal to insects. It also drains better than sand. However, children in wheelchairs or using mobility devices cannot travel over gravel as easily as other materials. Also, although gravel can cushion a fall, it is not very safe for small children because they can eat pea gravel or place it in their nose, ears or mouth. Lastly, pea gravel requires constant maintenance to keep it at a safe level and to check for hidden objects.

3. Sand

Like gravel, sand is also affordable, easy to install and provides good cushioning. However, it can conceal sharp objects, animal waste and other debris. Children might be tempted to eat or throw sand and can carry it home with them on their clothes and shoes. Sand requires constant maintenance and raking to replenish the levels and to check for hidden objects or pests. Like pea gravel it’s also not considered accessible.

EWF Is the Best Loose-Fill Option

All children should be able to use their community or school playground. For this reason, EWF is an ideal playground surface option because it is cost-effective, safe, looks great and is accessible when properly installed and maintained.

B) Learn More About Your Unitary Playground Surface Options

Unitary Pros

Unitary surfaces do not require a lot of maintenance, so they are desirable for those who have large budgets but less maintenance personnel. Unitary surfaces also usually have longer warranties except when placed in high-use areas. Finally, unitary surfaces are available in an array of colors so you can create original themes in your playground.

Unitary Cons

The downsides of unitary surfaces include higher installation and material costs upfront, the need for professional installation, they can get very hot during the summer, and they typically are not as resilient as loose-fill materials. Always ask to see test results or certification papers to be sure you are getting a surface that will protect you and the children using the play area. It’s a good idea to look at the actual Gmax and HIC (Head Injury Criteria) test results at the specific height of your highest fall height of your playground equipment to be sure the readings are at least 20% below the passing criteria of 200 Gs/ 1000 HIC because unitary surfaces will get harder over time. Ask your unitary supplier for their performance warranty.

We also recommend getting unitary surfaces tested for impact attenuation every so often, or at least within three years. With unitary surfaces, you can’t see what’s happening beneath the top layer, unlike a loose-fill surface. The surface can appear intact, but it’s possible it started to harden or decay beneath the first layer, and it will not perform as it should. To determine the safety of a unitary surface after installation, you will need to get a professional to conduct a test. Check out our brochure to learn more about the playground testing services we provide at Zeager.

Some experts also suggest that long bone fractures like wrist and ankle injuries are more likely to occur on a unitary product versus a loose-fill product because loose surfaces will move as impact occurs rather than staying put like unitary surfaces. For

mal studies need to be done to confirm this.

Types of Unitary Playground Surfacing Options

There are three main types of unitary playground surfacing options – PIP, rubber tiles and synthetic turf. Each type offers unique features and challenges.

1. PIP

PIP looks fantastic because it’s available in a range of colors and designs. This material consists of a wear layer of rubber particles and a top finish layer of granular particles. PIP provides a very smooth surface, making it easy for children with mobility devices to access equipment. It usually requires low maintenance costs over time and offers excellent shock absorption.

However, unless you have a big budget, PIP is certainly not the mos

t affordable choice. PIP is costly to install and requires professionals to pour the rubber on-site. Trained or certified installers must repair PIP when needed – not anyone can do it. Common issues include cracking or flaking after years of use or exposure to the elements and getting hard over time. Sometimes, improper installation can lead to disrepair. However, PIP is easy to maintain overall.

You can include rubber surfaces in your playground for a fraction of the cost. For example, you could install an EWF surface over the majority of the playground, and place our TuffMats® under frequently-used equipment to get the best of both worlds.

2. Rubber Tiles

Rubber tiles are made of bonded rubber and formed into 2-by-2-foot squares with interlocking sides. Rubber tiles are also a great choice for accessibility, but like PIP surfaces, are more expensive than loose-fill materials and require professional installation. Also, rubber tiles can curl at the edges over time, causing a tripping hazard, or dirt can accumulate between the cracks. All unitary surfaces need to be swept and regularly cleaned.

3. Synthetic Turf

Synthetic turf is most seen in athletic fields across the country, but can also be used in playgrounds or indoor play areas. In general, synthetic turf is made of artificial grass blades and rubber infill materials to create the appearance of real grass, but with much better impact attenuation. Synthetic turf is easy to maintain, and you do not need to worry about objects getting lost in the “grass.” Synthetic turf is also an accessible playground surface material.

Like other unitary surfaces, synthetic turf is more expensive than loose-fill surfaces and requires professional installation. Also, static electricity may build upon the synthetic turf, and the surface might need an anti-static sol

ution. We offer RecBase® synthetic grass so you can create the look and feel of real grass, without the maintenance hassles. Our RecBase also meets ADA standards and ASTM F1292 & F3313 field test method for impact attenuation.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Playground Surface

Let’s be honest here — there is no perfect surface. Nevertheless, a surface should be the total package — safe, accessible, available, affordable and of course, fit into your budget. Let’s take a look at all the most important factors you need to consider before making a purchase.

1. Safety

As a playground owner, the top factor to consider when choosing a surface is the level of playground fall protection you wish to obtain. Some surfaces are not safe outdoor playground surfaces. How do you know for sure that the product you want is safe? You only need to ask the vendor or manufacturer.

Ask the vendor for ASTM F1292 test results and if they field-tested the surface (ASTM F3313). Find out if the numbers are nearly failing or if there is plenty of room. Sometimes harsh weather can affect the resiliency of a surface, so you want to consider this when you look at the test results.

If you plan to install EWF, obtain test results for ASTM F2075, which is the standard specification for EWF for use as a playground surface. If using LFR, you could also ask for ASTM F3012, the standard specification for loose-fill rubber, which looks for hazardous metals like Mercury, Lead and Arsenic and tramp metals that could be lodged inside the rubber granulars which could poke through the rubber and harm a child’s skin.

When it’s time to buy and install the surface of your choice, remember these safety tips:

  • Fall surfaces should be at least 12 inches deep.
  • Safety surfaces should extend at least 6 feet in all directions from play equipment. (Further in swing areas. Check ASTM F1487 for use zone surface requirements.)
  • Remove trip hazards like rock or tree stumps.
  • Choose a surface you can properly maintain. Ask the manufacturer or supplier for proper documents to help you with this.

2. Accessibility

Looking for ADA compliant surfaces? Under the ADA, newly constructed or altered public or commercial playgrounds must comply with accessibility guidelines. These guidelines ensure all children get to access and enjoy playground equipment equally. Ground surfaces must comply with ASTM F1951, which is the accessibility standard for surfaces under and around playground equipment. This standard measures the amount of force an individual must use to move across the surface using a wheelchair or mobility device. To comply with the ADA, surfaces must also meet ASTM F1292, the impact attenuating standard.

Get an up-to-date ASTM F1951 test result demonstrating the surface you want is accessible. Also, find out if the seller has any maintenance suggestions or installation directions to help you maintain an accessible surface. If you follow the manufacturer’s instructions, correctly install the surface and keep up with surface maintenance, your playground surface will be ADA-compliant. There is more to accessibility then F1951 testing. You can find out more by visiting the US Access Board website.

3. Availability

We don’t mean whether the surface is available or not. Any supplier can sell a surface material. What we mean is, will you receive support when you feel stuck, and will the seller be available when you have questions or issues with the warranty?

Most playground owners don’t have the time to chase down a vendor and then get the runaround when it comes to questions and answers about the product they purchased. They want their vendor or manufacturer available when something pops up. At Zeager Bros., we’ll never leave you feeling stranded searching for answers. We’re available to address your questions or concerns whenever you need.

4. Budget – Seeking Affordable Playground Surfaces

Your budget is likely going to be the deciding factor when choosing a safe playground surface. Playground surfacing costs vary greatly between materials, and you also need to consider maintenance costs. Here’s a quick playground surface cost comparison, not including installation costs, according to average market cost from 2009 to 2012 to point you in the right direction:

  • PIP: $6.59 to $19 per square foot
  • Rubber tiles: $8.96 to $21 per square foot
  • EWF: $0.074 to $2.50 per square foot
  • Synthetic turf: $7.50 to $12.65 per square foot

It’s easy to desire a unitary surface so you can reduce maintenance costs. However, as you can see, loose-fill materials like EWF are much more affordable than unitary surface materials.

For some municipalities and school districts that have dozens of playgrounds, it makes more sense to add to surfacing and regularly maintain a playground rather than handing over a large amount of money upfront and draining the budget. However, if you don’t have enough employees to keep up the playground surface, you might consider PIP or another unitary surface. You still need to maintain a unitary surface by keeping it clean or patching some rough spots in high-use areas, but overall they are definitely less needy.

Also, think about playground size and how that affects your budget. For example, a small playground might be better with synthetic turf or PIP to save yourself the time of frequent maintenance. However, it would be more cost-effective to install EWF on a large playground. Also, although you’ll need to maintain EWF frequently, you won’t need to ask a professional to do it for you.

5. Quality

Some surfaces are simply made to last, while others are not. You want products you can trust for your playground because quality surfacing can keep a minor fall from turning into a severe injury. With this in mind, it’s not best to go with the least expensive material out there. Make sure to leave room in your budget for quality.

How do you know if a product is of high-quality? First, go to a reputable company. You want to work with a company who knows their stuff and who has experience. Read recent reviews and talk to other customers. Also, ask plenty of questions before you buy a product, so you know what to expect. Make sure to ask the following:

  • What is the material used: Ask the manufacturer or vendor what raw material is used in the product, as this can make a big difference in how long a surface will last.
  • Is there a warranty: Ask if the manufacturer backs up the product with a warranty. Products should be defect-free when bought.  For unitary surfaces, ask for the performance warranty since as we discussed earlier, it will get harder over time.  Always ask for warranty details before purchasing any playground surfacing material.
  • Where are other customers: Ask for a list of other playground customers in the area who installed the product in the past five to 10years to see what problems with maintenance or installation they may have experienced.

6. Maintenance Requirements

Finally, you need to consider how much maintenance you feel comfortable with because if you don’t maintain a surface properly, it will not work as intended. Also, think about maintenance costs and what you can afford. For example, EWF requires regular maintenance to ensure ADA compliance. We provide the following recommendations for our WoodCarpet® EWF:

  • Daily: Visually inspect the playground for trash, tree branches or other debris.
  • Weekly: Rake the WoodCarpet as needed to ensure sufficient depth throughout the playground and a firm, level surface.
  • Monthly: Check the drain system performance. Dig down to the drain system to measure the depth and make sure it is sufficient for the fall height of equipment structures.

PIP & tiles, on the other hand, only involves sweeping, or using a leaf blower to clean on a regular basis. However, when damage such as cracking or vandalism occurs, you’ll need to contact a professional or the manufacturer to make a repair. This can add to maintenance costs. Keep in mind to get it impact tested every so often (3 years is suggested by us) to make sure it’s maintaining its impact attenuation.

Keep in mind that you can add wear mats to simplify EWF maintenance in high-use areas. As always, never hesitate to contact us if you have maintenance questions or concerns.

Are Certain Surfaces More Appropriate for Different Climates?

As mentioned above, you should ask for impact test results from your manufacturer. These test results should be per the ASTM F1292 lab test method and/or F3313 field test method. These test methods simulates the impact of a child’s head with the surface. It quantifies the impact using terms such as “g-max,” referred to as “peak g-max,” and head injury criteria (HIC) scores. The test is performed in three temperatures – ambient, freezing and hot or the ambient outside temperature. This helps the buyer determine how the surfacing is going to perform in extreme temperatures. Remember, to consider other factors like drainage when you install your surface.

Drainage makes a big difference when it comes to surface safety. For example, if a surface does not properly drain, frozen moisture will make the surface material stiff and reduce impact attenuation. If you want a surface to perform for a long time, you need to make sure the drainage system is in good condition. Playground owners also need to ensure the surface was field-tested and installed correctly. Also, they need to check that the test results represent the product they wish to purchase.

Are There Any Trends in the Surfacing Manufacturing or Installing Business?

We have a noticed a trend that emphasizes nature and incorporating natural elements like rocks and trees into a playground theme. Kids love to make forts with branches or climb on boulders. Natural looking playgrounds help kids use their imaginations. EWF is a great choice for popular playgrounds because it’s all-natural and meets the required safety standards.

Reach Out to Zeager Bros. Today

At Zeager, we understand that choosing the right playground surface is an involved process. You need to

 weigh the pros and cons and consider many different factors before making a big financial decision. A playground is a major investment, and it should be built to last for many years. We’re here to help you make the best choice.

As a three-generations-old company, we know how to handle tough questions and concerns. We also believe in doing things the right way. From delivering quality, durable surface materials to providing customer service you can depend on, we stand by our products, and our customers, every step of the way. With us, you don’t have to worry if you are buying safe surfacing. Our playground surfacing is certified to meet ADA and ASTM safety standards. To learn more about our recreational surfacing options, reach out to us today.