How to Choose Playground Safety Surfacing

Table of Contents

Playground surfacing may not be the first element that comes to mind when designing or installing a new playground. Still, the surfacing is a critical part of any playground, and it needs to be made from durable, shock-absorbing materials.

A soft playground flooring material cushions falls and helps prevent severe injuries. Every year, over 200,000 kids go to the emergency room with playground-related injuries, and over 20,000 are treated for a traumatic brain injury. With the right playground surfacing, you can help kids avoid a trip to the hospital and keep them playing — and coming back for more fun.

It’s also important to choose accessible playground surfacing, so kids of all abilities can play. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), all newly designed or constructed play areas, including those at childcare facilities and shopping centers, must comply with ADA guidelines.

Whether you’re looking for a playground surface for a school, entertainment center or restaurant, you face a range of options. In this guide, we’ll explore the different types of playground surfaces, look at the benefits of each and provide tips for making the right choice.

Unitary Materials

Playground Surfacing Options

Playground surface materials can either be unitary or loose-fill. A unitary surface is smooth and continuous. Unitary materials include pour-in-place rubber surfaces, synthetic turf and rubber tiles.

Loose-fill surfaces consist of small, individual pieces. Examples of loose-fill materials include wood chips, sand, pea gravel, shredded rubber and engineered wood fiber.

Either type of material might work for you, but it depends on your needs. Here’s a closer look at each type of surface and the benefits of each:

1. Wood Chips

Wood chips or mulch are a type of loose-fill material that may be used beneath playground equipment or in landscaping. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends only using wood chips that had not been treated with chromated copper arsenate. Playground owners should never use less than 9 inches of wood chips, as they can get displaced or compacted when there’s not enough depth.

Wood chips and mulch are easy to find and install and are generally a low-cost option. Despite the benefits, wood chips are not recognized as ADA-compliant, so this material has its limitations. Wood chips also need to be closely monitored to ensure there are enough in place to cushion a fall.

Sand Play Areas

2. Sand

Like wood chips, sand is another easy-to-install, low-cost surfacing option. Sand should not be used in a play area with a fall height greater than 4 feet. Fall height refers to the distance between the highest point of a designated play surface and the ground underneath.

Sand is easy to maintain, and many kids enjoy playing in sand. But, like wood chips and many other loose-fill materials, sand is not ADA-compliant and can conceal objects that might be hazardous.

3. Pea Gravel

Pea gravel consists of small, round pebbles. It’s an inexpensive loose-fill option, but it should not be used with fall heights greater than 5 feet.

Probably the only benefit of pea gravel is its low cost. Otherwise, this material should not be used because kids might be tempted to throw the tiny pebbles or put them in their mouths. Also, pea gravel is not ADA-compliant, and it has high maintenance requirements.

4. Shredded Rubber

Shredded rubber is a type of mulch often made from recycled tires. Shredded rubber is also a type of loose-fill material. If you’re looking for a low-cost rubber surface material for your playground, you should consider shredded rubber.

Shredded rubber meets the minimum requirements to be ADA-approved, and it’s easy to install. Since shredded rubber is a loose-fill material, it needs to be monitored frequently to ensure the proper depth.

5. Pour-In-Place Rubber

Pour-in-place (PIP) rubber is a type of synthetic unitary surface. PIP is mixed on-site and placed wherever you need a fall attenuating surface. PIP surfaces are available in a range of colors, patterns and unique shapes. With PIP rubber, you can choose surfacing that suits your playground or business theme and set yourself apart.

PIP rubber is one of the best children’s soft play surfaces available. There are many benefits to PIP, such as:

  • It’s ADA-approved
  • It has a smooth, attractive appearance
  • It’s highly durable
  • It provides a permanent solution
  • It requires low maintenance
  • It offers exceptional shock absorption

Modular tiles

6. Modular Tiles

Like PIP, modular rubber tiles are a synthetic, unitary surfacing material. These tiles are shaped into 2-by-2-foot squares and installed with durable, subsurface clips. Modular tiles offer an economical solution for business owners who want attractive, compliant surfacing for their playground.

Modular tiles offer several benefits for play areas, such as:

  • ADA-approved
  • Fast and easy to install
  • Available in a variety of colors
  • Easy to maintain and repair

7. Engineered Wood Fiber

Engineered wood fiber (EWF) is a loose-fill material that is similar to wood chips. However, EWF is designed specifically for playground use. As with other loose-fill materials, it’s essential to make sure EWF keeps the proper depth, as pieces can easily get displaced.

EWF doesn’t attract insects like other loose-fill materials, and it’s ADA-approved. EWF can also be used for play areas with fall heights up to 10 feet, making it a better choice than other loose-fill materials.

8. Synthetic Turf

Synthetic turf consists of rubber and artificial grass blades. You might see synthetic turf used in athletic fields, but it can also be applied as a playground surfacing material.

When properly installed, synthetic turf can be ADA-compliant, and it won’t get displaced like wood chips or pea gravel. Even though synthetic turf is an accessible material, it’s limited in design and color.

How Do You Choose the Right Surface for a Play Area?

Every playground has unique requirements regarding safety, accessibility, maintenance and appearance. For example, while an ADA-approved loose-fill material might be suitable for a school, it may not be the best option for a play area in a restaurant where loose pieces could make their way to the dining room floor. To guide you in the right direction, here are surfacing ideas for various settings:

Safety surfacing for schools


Project managers have to consider many different factors when selecting an appropriate playground surface for a school. First, they must choose a material that’s both ADA-compliant and impact attenuating. While schools can combine accessible and non-accessible surfacing in a playground, they must remember certain guidelines.

For example, according to the ADA, at least one of each type of ground-level play component must be on an accessible route. Also, at least 50% of the elevated play components must be on an accessible path. To comply with these requirements, schools will want to choose materials like PIP, rubber tiles, synthetic turf or EWF for accessible areas.

Schools must also consider maintenance requirements when choosing a surfacing material. Think about the staff and who’s available to ensure the playground surfacing is always at the proper depth. PIP and rubber tiles are excellent options if you need low-maintenance surfacing.

Lastly, the average school has hundreds of students, so every aspect of the playground needs to be built to handle a lot of traffic. Choose a durable material like PIP to install surfacing that can withstand frequent use.
Safety surfacing for daycares

Daycare Centers

Daycare centers are typically designed to accommodate toddlers and pre-school age kids. However, some facilities welcome infants, while others have programs to provide after-school care for kids. Think about the age range your daycare center caters to and choose the surfacing accordingly.

For instance, if you mostly provide care for young kids, you’ll want to avoid using loose-fill materials like pea gravel or wood mulch. Although pea gravel has shock-absorbing qualities, it’s also small enough to be a choking hazard. In this case, it would be better to choose a unitary surface material.

Also, think about how you want parents to perceive your daycare center. Parents are most concerned with their child’s safety when choosing a daycare facility. Show parents you care about their little ones by selecting a soft, high-quality, unitary surface like PIP or rubber tiles. You might also want to choose bright, cheerful colors to create a visually stimulating environment that promotes growth and development.

Family Entertainment Centers

family entertainment center must visually appeal to families and stand out from competitors. This often means the use of bright, fun colors, innovative play equipment and high-quality materials. It may also involve using materials that match a particular theme or color scheme.

If you own a family entertainment center, you need to choose a surfacing material that can handle falls from the equipment you have. It’s also worth choosing a material that’s easy to maintain and access.

To attract families to your business, your best bet is to go with PIP or rubber tiles. These materials allow you to design creative, exciting patterns on the floor while also meeting safety and accessibility requirements. Plus, they require very little maintenance, so you can keep welcoming families to your business stress-free. When you choose a quality, durable material like PIP, you don’t have to make repairs as often either, saving you costs in the long run.

Safety surfacing for gyms


Gyms aren’t just for adults. These days, parents recognize the importance of physical activity for the entire family, and they want their kids to burn off all their energy. If you own a gym and are considering installing a play area, you need the right surfacing to protect kids as they play to give their parents peace of mind.

You’ll want to choose a unitary surface like PIP, rubber tiles or synthetic turf. These materials are most suitable for an indoor play area, and you can select a color that matches your brand. These materials are also easy to clean, which makes them ideal for keeping your gym in tip-top shape.


If you’re considering installing a play area in your restaurant, you’ll want to avoid loose-fill materials and opt for a unitary surface instead. Loose-fill is easily displaced and not something you want near the kitchen or dining area. You’ll also want a surfacing material that is easy to clean and won’t conceal dropped utensils, food, pests or other items. A smooth, appealing unitary surface like PIP simply looks cleaner, as well, which is something restaurant customers desire.

Another reason to choose PIP rubber is it allows you to create an exciting theme in your restaurant. Some kids aren’t thrilled to sit down for dinner, but if they know they’re going to a restaurant with a fun play area and an adventurous theme, they’ll be a lot more likely to cooperate with mom or dad. They’ll also ask their parents to choose your restaurant over a competitor when they remember how much fun they had.

Retail Centers

Play areas in retail centers can make the shopping experience much more pleasant for parents and kids. To ensure families enjoy shopping at your store or mall, you’ll want to select a quality, easy-to-maintain surfacing material that can handle heavy traffic and appeal to all ages.

Like other businesses with indoor play areas, your best options are PIP, modular tiles or synthetic turf. A shopping center must accommodate a range of ages and abilities, so you’ll want to keep these factors in mind when you search for surfacing.

How Do You Budget for Playground Surfaces?

The surfacing is a necessary part of your playground budget and an item you don’t want to skimp on. In general, you can expect the surfacing to require around 10% of your playground budget, but this will vary depending on the material you choose and how much space you need to cover.

Safety surfacing budgets

If you’re on a tight budget, know that loose-fill has the lowest cost upfront. EWF might be the best choice if you need a budget-friendly loose-fill material that’s also ADA-approved. Or, you can combine loose-fill materials with accessible pathways consisting of PIP rubber, for example.

If you’re going for quality, accessibility and durability, you’ll want to budget for PIP or modular tiles. Choosing a rubber surface material can still be affordable, especially when you think of the big picture. Here’s what you’ll want to consider:

  • Installation: If you choose a material that’s quick and easy to install, you won’t have to spend as much on installation fees. For example, if you and your staff are DIYers, you can install modular tiles without hiring professionals. If you decide to choose PIP, which must be installed professionally, you can save money by preparing the site as much as you can before the pros arrive.
  • Durability: Consider how long a surface will last and how it will affect your budget over time. PIP surfaces can last for years, while materials like wood mulch need to be replenished annually.
  • Maintenance: Some materials require a lot of attention to ensure they provide an adequate level of impact attenuation and accessibility. Surfacing like EWF needs to be checked frequently to ensure there’s enough depth and there aren’t dangerous objects hidden in the material. PIP, on the other hand, requires very little maintenance. If you apply PIP rubber to an indoor play area away from the elements, you can expect lower maintenance costs.
  • Appeal: As a business owner, you likely want to attract more customers. One way to do this is to create a play area that leaves a great impression and makes families want to return. This means choosing a surface material that’s visually pleasing and adds to the play experience. With PIP, you can create a custom design that makes your play area stand out. As a result, you can expect a greater return on your investment.

If you want more tips on how to fit PIP or modular tiles into your playground budget, please reach out to us at Soft Play®. We’ll be happy to discuss your options.

Things to consider when choosing playground surfacing

Factors to Consider When Choosing Surfacing for Your Business

When it’s time to shop for surfacing, it’ll be easier to make a decision if you consider the following factors first:

  • Accessibility: You need to consider if a material is accessible and will allow kids with mobility devices to use the play area. If you wish to choose a non-accessible material like sand or pea gravel, you still have to combine it with an accessible material and follow ADA guidelines. By installing a material like PIP or rubber tiles in your entire play area, you can be sure you’re ADA-compliant all the way through.
  • Size requirements: Think about how much space you need to cover and how it affects your budget and surfacing material choice. You’ll want to allow at least 75 square feet per child in the main area of your playground, so the more kids you need to accommodate, the more surfacing you’ll need. You might have more room in your budget for a high-quality surface material if you have a smaller play area. A professional can help you come up with creative ways to combine materials if you need to cover a lot of space with a limited budget.
  • Budget: Your budget might be the factor that determines the type of surfacing you choose. As mentioned above, loose-fill materials cost less than unitary surfaces upfrontHowever, keep in mind that high-quality materials last longer and require lower levels of maintenance, which could be better for your budget in the long run.
  • Customization options: Do you envision a playground with a unique, eye-catching theme or style? If you need surfacing that fits your vision, you may need to choose a customizable option like PIP. With PIP, you’ll have more freedom to express your artistic side and create an inspiring and memorable play area.
  • Trends: To create a play area that feels new and exciting to your customers, consider current trends. Unitary surfaces featuring vibrant colors and interesting patterns have gained popularity over the past few years. Some playgrounds have found ways to make surface patterns part of the play experience.
  • Goals: Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish with your playground and the surfacing materials used. Do you hope to attract more families to your establishment? Do you wish to spread awareness of your brand? Let your goals help guide your decision.

The Benefits of Choosing Soft Play Safety Surfacing

Deciding on a type of surface material is a big decision. Your material choice will affect your customers’ experience, and it’s an investment in your business. If you’re ready to explore your options further and learn how we can help, reach out to us at Soft Play.

At Soft Play, we offer smooth, durable and accessible playground surfacing to handle hours of high-impact play and heavy traffic. When you work with Soft Play, you’ll enjoy other benefits, too, such as:

  • Free design consultation: Our designers are happy to help you create unique, custom-made surfacing that’s also safe and durable. We’ll work with you to select colors or patterns that will make your play area pop and stick in your customers’ minds.
  • Expert advice: With over 30 years of experience, we understand how play design can help businesses attract more customers and make them eager to return. We’re thrilled to use our expertise to help our customers grow their businesses.
  • Quality and value: We prioritize quality with all of our play equipment and surfacing materials, and are proud to offer American-made products. You can be sure our products offer excellent value.
  • Exceptional service and support: We care about our customers and want to answer your questions and help you make the right decisions. Our experienced representatives are ready to provide expert guidance and work closely with you until we’re sure your project is a success.

Every playground needs soft, quality surfacing. To learn more about our surfacing options at Soft Play, request a quote today!

Start typing and press Enter to search