Swing Set Surfacing: The Best Materials to Put Under Your Playset
When it comes to building a playset for kids, you want to create a safe and comfortable area for them, including what material to put under the swing set. Most playground injuries occur as a result of a fall, so a crucial aspect of ensuring the safety of the play area is selecting a shock-absorbing, impact-attenuating surfacing material. The surface under a playset can significantly impact the overall safety and enjoyment of the play experience. As a mom, I have experience playing on playgrounds with all different types of surface materials and want to share my advice on the best surfacing options for playsets! Safety is number one concern, but as busy parents we also want to consider other factors such as durability, affordability, and maintenance requirements.
Before diving into the various surfacing options, it's essential to understand the significance of a suitable playset surface. Children are naturally adventurous and can be quite energetic while playing. With climbing structures, swings, and slides involved, there's always a risk of falls and injuries. The right surfacing material acts as a protective cushion, reducing the impact of falls and preventing severe injuries. The Consumer Product Safety Commission publishes an Outdoor Home Playground Safety Handbook that includes guidelines for protective surfacing. For maximum safety, loose-fill materials such as mulch, engineered wood fiber, sand, and pea gravel should be maintained to a depth of 9 inches to maintain their impact attenuating qualities. The guidelines recommend against installing playground equipment over concrete, asphalt, or any other hard surface. Grass and dirt are not considered protective surfacing because they can become quite compacted reducing their shock absorbing effectiveness.
Grass is the easiest and most commonly seen surfacing option, but requires the most maintenance (i.e., mowing under and around the playset) and doesn’t offer much safety in terms of shock absorption.
Loose-fill materials like sand, pea gravel, and mulch are the most affordable options, but they require regular maintenance to maintain their impact absorption properties.
Solid surface options like pre-manufactured rubber tiles, poured in place rubber, or artificial turf cost more upfront, but offer maximum impact attenuation with minimal maintenance.
For fitness playsets, a mix of materials might be the best option for maximizing the adult fitness zones with children’s fall safety considerations.
Playground Surfacing Materials
Grass is a natural and visually pleasing option for playset surfacing. However, its effectiveness as a cushioning material is limited, especially when compared to other alternatives. Grass can provide a slight cushioning effect, but it may not be sufficient to prevent injuries from significant falls.
Sand became a popular choice due to its affordability and ease of installation. It offers a fair amount of cushioning, but may not be suitable for playsets with higher platforms and structures. Sand can be prone to shifting and becoming compacted, potentially leading to uneven surfaces and increased tripping hazards. And depending on how close your playset is to the back door, you may not want the mess of sand getting tracked in!
Pea gravel is another economical option that provides better cushioning than grass or sand. It allows for proper drainage and is less likely to degrade over time. However, pea gravel can be hard to walk on, get stuck in your shoes, and small stones might present choking hazards for young children.
Wood Mulch or Chips
Mulch is affordable and easy to find in most parts of the country but tends to become compacted over time and requires maintenance. We recommend laying landscape fabric down before installing your playset to keep the weeds down.
Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF)
Engineered wood fiber, is similar to mulch but is made from shredded pine or hardwood and is a popular choice for playset surfacing due to its impact absorption. It meets safety standards set by organizations like the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). EWF provides a natural look and can be a cost-effective solution for larger play areas. However, like mulch, it requires regular maintenance to retain its effectiveness.
Rubber mulch, made from recycled rubber, has gained popularity for its shock-absorbing properties. It cushions falls effectively, reducing the risk of serious injuries. Unlike natural materials, rubber mulch does not decompose or compact easily, making it a low-maintenance option. Additionally, it offers superior longevity and does not attract pests or mold. On the downside, it can be difficult to walk on, gets stuck in shoes, and has a tendency to leave black residue on users shoes and hands.
Poured-in-place rubber is a premium safety surfacing option known for its high durability and customizability and most commonly used in commercial playground settings. This type of surfacing involves mixing rubber granules with a binding agent and pouring it directly onto the play area. Poured-in-place rubber offers consistent fall protection, making it ideal for playsets with tall structures or equipment at varying heights. While it requires a higher upfront investment, it can be an excellent long-term solution.
Rubber tiles provide a similar level of safety as poured-in-place rubber but in a more modular and cost-effective form. These interlocking tiles are easy to install and maintain. They come in various thicknesses, allowing customization of the cushioning effect based on the playset's height and the critical fall height rating.
Artificial turf has exceptional aesthetic appeal, longevity, and virtually no maintenance. Artificial turf systems designed specifically for playgrounds have a padded underlay system for shock absorption. When artificial turf is installed over concrete or compacted materials, it doesn’t provide adequate impact attenuation.
Maintenance and Longevity of Playground Surfacing Options
One essential factor to consider when choosing playset surfacing is maintenance. Natural materials like grass, sand, and pea gravel require regular upkeep to retain their safety properties and aesthetics. They may need frequent raking, refilling, or leveling, which can be time-consuming.
In contrast, synthetic options such as rubber mulch, poured-in-place rubber, and rubber tiles have a longer lifespan and lower maintenance requirements. They don't require constant replacement or significant attention, which can save time and money over the years.