When building a playground, whether for a school, community or residential property, nothing is more important than safety. One of the critical parts of a safe playground is the surfacing material used.
Looking for the best material for your playground surface? Safe playground surfacing is designed to cushion a fall and is a playground necessity. No matter what precautions parents, teachers and other caregivers take, falls are inevitable sometimes. Children jump from swings or roughhouse on playsets when parents turn their heads. Sometimes children simply lose their balance on a piece of equipment. When this happens, they need to land on something soft and thick enough to absorb the impact and prevent a minor injury from turning into a severe one.
According to the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), nearly 70 percent of all playground injuries are due to falls. Fortunately, most injuries are preventable, and choosing safe surface materials can greatly reduce the severity of an injury.
If you’re not sure what playground safety surface material to use, Zeager Bros., Inc. is here to help. We’ll show you the safest playground surface material, and we’ll list materials you want to avoid. A safe, fun playground is sure to bring many years of joy. Let us help you create a playground that promotes health, happiness and playtime outside.
What Is the Best Surface for Playgrounds?
All great playground surfaces are safe, tested to current standards and visually appealing. However, when it comes to safety, no other material outshines engineered wood fiber (EWF). EWF is the most cost-effective loose-fill material for playground surfacing and has superior abilities for cushioning falls or impacts. Loose-fill surfaces, like EWF, are easy to install and maintain to adesired depth. Other examples of loose-fill include sand, pea gravel and wood chips. However, these materials do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). EWF is by far the safest and absorbs an impact of up to 12 feet when properly maintained at a 12-inch thickness. Although it looks like wood mulch, EWF is designed specifically for playground safety.
1. Engineered Wood Fiber
EWF is different than large wood chips in its fibrous texture. These small fibers weave together tightly to create a dense, firm surface to meet accessibility guidelines and absorb impacts. EWF is sustainable and all-natural. When made in a Zeager-authorized location, EWF comes from fresh wood that could not be used for lumber. Zeager never uses tree species that might be endangered.
This type of surface is affordable and easy to install, but it does need regular maintenance to preserve accessibility in high-use areas such as slide exits and beneath swings. Installing wear mats like our TuffMatsⓇ in high-use areas creates a safe, accessible floor space while requiringless maintenance to keep these areas compliant.
EWF is a popular surfacing material because it offers numerous benefits such as:
- Strong shock-absorbing qualities
- Meets accessibility standards if properly installed and maintained
- Very affordable
Although EWF is the safest playground surface material, it’s important to note a few drawbacks so you know exactly what to expect. These include:
- Needs to be replenished from time to time
- Could conceal foreign objects
- Requires routine maintenance for ADA compliance
Overall, EWF prevails as the best material for playground surfaces, and, as a bonus, is also an economical choice.
Other Child-Safe Playground Surfaces
Although EWF is the best surface for a playground, you might choose other materials depending on your situation. For example, some playground surfaces are easier to maintain for ADA compliance than EWF. However, EWF packs down tightly to allow access for all children. We’ll explore other safe playground surface materials below so you can find the ideal choice for your circumstances.
2. Poured-In-Place Rubber
Poured-in-place rubber is often used at resorts or amusement parks because it is available in many different designs and colors. Public playgrounds typically avoid poured-in-place rubber because of its cost. Yet, because of its level of stability and durability it’s considered one of the best materials for playground surfaces. Nevertheless, poured-in-place rubber offers benefits such as:
- High level of firmness and stability
- More durable
- No need to worry about concealed objects
- Excellent choice for ADA compliance
Disadvantages of poured-in-place rubber include:
- Requires high skill level for installation
- Can harden over time with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light or extreme temperatures
3. Synthetic Turf
Synthetic turf was introduced in the 1960s but didn’t become widespread until the 1980s. As the name implies, synthetic turf was originally made to look and feel like natural grass. However, it is ever-evolving as a safe surface material. It’s a popular choice for athletic fields, and there are currently over 12,000 sports fields in the United States that use synthetic turf.
Synthetic turf is a unitary material which means it is formed into a solid or semi-solid surface unlike loose materials such as EWF. Unitary materials are typically more expensive than loose-fill and are often more difficult to install. However, you might choose synthetic turf like our innovative ADA-compliant Recbase® synthetic grass to enjoy the following benefits:
- Higher durability
- Easy maintenance
- No need to worry about concealed objects
- Available in different colors
- Better accessibility characteristics then EWF
Unlike real grass, synthetic turf cannot be torn up or hide pests, making it a safe choice for indoor or outdoor playgrounds. It also can take an impact and is easy for children with disabilities to cross over. However, a few disadvantages include:
- Requires professional installation
- Costs more than other materials
- Less resistant to heat
Synthetic turf absorbs heat, which might be problematic on a hot day. Building a playground in a shaded area can help reduce this issue, but it’s still something to consider.
4. Synthetic Tiles
Synthetic tiles are composed of rubber-based materials. Tiles require professional installation firm sub-base underneath. Once in place, they can cushion a fall and are often installed over concrete or asphalt. A study which looked at the effect of rubber tiles in nursing homes found that half-inch thick tiles reduced the force of an impact by 65 to 85 percent when compared to concrete floors. Synthetic tiles make an excellent choice for ADA compliance. Other benefits include:
- Worn tiles can be easily repaired
- Highly durable and impact-resistant
- Very ADA-compliant
- Multiple colors
A few disadvantages include:
- More expensive than other materials
- Must be installed professionally
- Debris and dirt can build between joined pieces and cause failure
Materials to Avoid
Some materials are unsafe for playgrounds and could lead to severe injuries or worse. These include the following:
- Grass or dirt: Grass might feel soft, but it is not thick enough to cushion a fall. Also, environmental factors such as freezing temperatures affect the earth’s shock-absorbing abilities.
- Concrete: Concrete, asphalt or any hard surface could lead to a traumatic brain injury (TBI) after a fall and should never be used beneath playground equipment.
- Wooden boards: Some homeowners might consider placing a small swing set or another piece of playground equipment on a wooden deck or boards, but this is unsafe and will do very little to cushion a fall. Also, wooden boards might become slippery when wet.
- Loose-fill rubber: Less likely to meet ADA guidelines
Playground Safety Surface Standards
Playground safety standards help guide playground owners when it’s time to make a design or maintenance decision. Not all U.S. states have passed legislation to enforce playground safety. However, many states have adopted guidelines established by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and the NPPS urges all states to do so.
Even if playground safety is voluntary in some areas, playground owners could still be held liable for injuries that occur on their playgrounds. Anyone who operates a playground should consider safety standards, not just to protect the children in a community, but also to protect themselves and their business. We’ll look at the most important surfacing standards used in playground planning to give you a general idea of what defines a safe playground.
The CPSC published the Public Playground Safety Handbook to help individuals build safe playgrounds. This information is available for free online and includes everything playground owners need to know to keep kids safe as much as possible. Regarding playground surfacing, the CPSC encourages playground owners to keep the following tips in mind:
- Appropriate surfacing includes any material tested to meet ASTM F1292 standards, such as EWF.
- Loose-fill surfacing compresses at least 25 percent over time, so playground owners need to consider this and plan to add enough loose-fill material accordingly.
- Loose-fill requires frequent maintenance to make sure the depth is at a safe level, especially under and around high-use areas like slide exits or under swings.
- Playground owners should add a perimeter designed to keep loose-fill materials contained in the playground.
- Good drainage is vital in maintaining any safety surface, and playground owners need to make sure water does not pool anywhere on the playground.
- Playground owners should never use less than 9 inches of a loose-fill material.
2. ASTM International
ASTM International develops voluntary standards to ensure safety and quality. When a product is certified to meet ASTM standards, you know the product is up to par when it comes to safety.
ASTM has set many playground standards, but the most important for playground surfacing is the F1292 standard, which was established in 1999 to reduce serious injuries and death. It has been used as the standard method of evaluation for loose-fill materials ever since. This evaluation method includes two measurement procedures — a critical drop height test completed in a laboratory and a test of installed surface performance. In general, F1292 lists requirements for meeting impact attenuation performance and provides a way of determining a product’s capabilities using special test equipment. Currently a new standard test method is being developed to provide performance values of a surface at a specific height to give playground owners more information when purchasing surfacing for their playground.
Anyone purchasing playground surface materials should request ASTM F1292 test information.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed in 1990. It prohibits discrimination and promises that Americans with disabilities receive equal opportunities. All newly-built or altered public or commercial playgrounds are required to comply with the ADA. However, these guidelines do not apply to home childcare facilities, amusement attractions or religious entities. Playground owners are responsible for creating playgrounds all children can use. Regarding playground surfacing, the ADA sets the following guidelines:
- Playground owners must create accessible routes in and around play areas designed for wheelchairs or mobility devices.
- Ground surfaces must comply with ASTM F1951-99 which tests the accessibility of a surface by measuring the force an individual must use to move a wheelchair or mobility device across the surface.
- Surfacing must meet the ASTM F1292 standard within play equipment areas to ensure the surfacing is impact-attenuating.
- Surfacing must be inspected and maintained frequently and regularly to ensure compliance.
- Maintenance frequency depends on use and type of surfacing material.
Ask your surface supplier for test results showing it complies with ADA standards.
The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) is a non-profit standards development organization which established recommendations for playground safety surfacing. Playground owners can use the CSA as another resource when designing and installing a safe playground. Some of their surfacing recommendations include:
- Fall height of play equipment is measured from the tops of barriers.
- Playground surfacing should extend at least 6 feet in all directions from playground equipment.
- Playground owners should regularly check for dangerous objects that could be hidden in safety surfacing.
Buy EWF Surfacing Today
If you’re searching for the best material for playground surfaces, reach out to us at Zeager and explore our WoodCarpetⓇ EWF options. Our EWF surfacing is third-party certified to ASTM standards and also meets ADA, CPSC and CSA standards. When you install our EWF as your playground surface, you can rest assured your playground is compliant with the law and exceeds safety standards. We offer the following types of durable, natural, high-performing EWF surfaces:
- WoodCarpet System 1: As our most affordable EWF option, WoodCarpet System 1 is designed for fast water drainage, deep shock absorption and unbeatable durability in those high use areas using our unique Tuffmat® Zerofill wear mats. Also, it’s simple to install and easy to maintain.
- WoodCarpet System 11: For a combination of WoodCarpet System 1 and our WoodCarpet Resilient/Drainage Pad, choose the WoodCarpet System 11. This system uses polyethylene foam to provide superior drainage and an extra layer of cushioning.
- WoodCarpet Bonded 1: Affordable, eco-friendly and ADA-compliant, this material is perfect for creating accessible, easy-to-maintain recreational trails. WoodCarpet Bonded 1 provides a safe, comfortable path while beautifully blending into any outdoor setting.
- WoodCarpet Bonded 2: Our WoodCarpet Bonded 2 allows you to upgrade an existing playground surface for easy maintenance, highly accessible pathways and natural look.
A safe playground is a happy playground. Children should be able to play, laugh and enjoy playground equipment in the sun and fresh air without worrying about falling on hard materials. Although no surface can stop an injury from happening, the right surface can help prevent severe injuries and keep kids comfortable, joyful and healthy. You can’t go wrong with EWF, especially if it’s from Zeager. To learn more about our EWF surfacing options, contact us today.