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Guide to the Best Playground Ground Cover Materials

best playground ground cover materials

Playgrounds are exceptionally important parts of childhood. Playgrounds are places for children to exercise, socialize and test their limits. They’re places of adventure and imagination — places of inclusion for kids of all backgrounds and abilities. Playgrounds need to be accessible and, above all, they need to be safe.

Children and adults look at playgrounds from two different perspectives. Kids see opportunities to run, play, jump and chase. They see challenges in climbing high and going fast. Adults have other views of how a playground should be. They want kids to develop muscle and coordination, but they want assurance that risks are reduced.

Playgrounds across the nation have evolved over generations. Today’s playground equipment is much more durable than past pieces, and it’s designed with safety as a paramount concern. Gone are dangerous devices like teeter-totters and see-saws. Adventure walls, tunnels and rope meshes are popular placements. So are spiral slides and zip lines.

What’s also changed are playground ground cover options. Playground ground materials used to be limited to hard grass, gravel, sand or even concrete. These outdoor playground ground covers accounted for numerous injuries from falls and hard landings. Some falls resulted in traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), and sometimes, they were fatal.

According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), over 200,000 children are treated in emergency rooms each year across the nation. More than half of these unfortunate injuries occur from contact with hard ground. Most of these injuries are avoidable if the builders or designers first consider the best playground surface material.

Whether you’re designing a new playground or upgrading an old one, choosing the best playground ground cover is equally as important as deciding what above ground equipment you’ll use. You might just be building a backyard place for your own kids, or maybe you’re involved in a project to build a community playground. Maybe you’re a manager responsible for numerous school playgrounds or many recreational sites across a city or series of state parks.

Whatever your role in developing a children’s play facility, you need to know what to use for playground ground cover. There are many good options that provide you with the best material for playground surfaces, but it’s important to know there’s no perfect solution. What’s the right playground material for one application might not be the best for another. Ultimately, what you want and need is a safe playground ground cover.

Choosing a soft ground cover for playgrounds incorporates several key factors. Let’s look at each factor before examining what’s available and what the best ground materials are.

Factors in Choosing a Playground Ground Cover

Planning a great playground incorporates far more than just picking the right equipment. Even the best designed, most expensive and safest playground equipment won’t serve children well if the ground surface doesn’t let them enjoy comfortable tumbles and inevitable falls.

No two playgrounds are alike. Each one has their own parameters. Some are indoor, and some are outdoor. Others are on flat lots, and some work naturally hilly terrain to their advantage. They have unique situations like climate, drainage, and sun or shade patterns. They also all have varying degrees of traffic.

But what every playground has in common is that it’s built on a base or ground surface. Choosing the right ground cover relies on a total package that includes:

  • Availability
  • Maintenance
  • Accessibility
  • Appearance
  • Affordability
  • Safety

Let’s look closely at each of these six important factors:

  1. Ground Cover Availability: Finding a product online or some other source might appear attractive. That’s until you discover it’s not readily available in your area and requires expensive shipping costs. It also might involve specialized installation skills or machinery. You also have to be assured your supplier is readily available in case questions or problems arise. They need to be close at hand to visit your project or lend technical support.
  2. Ground Cover Maintenance: Maintenance of playground ground cover is a huge issue, especially for commercial applications where there are limited resources for regular cleanup and ensuring the area is kept in acceptable standards. Some ground cover manufacturers advertise their products to be low-maintenance. However, it’s a buyer beware situation, and you must know you get what you pay for. Make sure your choice in ground cover takes maintenance into account.
  3. Ground Cover Accessibility: This doesn’t mean being able to access or obtain a particular type of ground cover. It refers to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that governs public playgrounds, including what types of ground covers are acceptable. This is the law, not an option, and it’s enforceable by the Department of Justice (DOJ). The ADA is very specific that ground cover materials are suitable to accommodate all people, inclusive of those with mobility and footing issues like in wheelchairs or on crutches.
  4. Ground Cover Appearance: Appearance is a definite consideration when choosing the right playground ground cover. Visit any of today’s new playgrounds, and you’ll see tremendous thought going into their overall design. That includes blending the functional equipment into the site location or terrain. A prominent sign of careful thought and planning is how they’ve chosen the right ground cover to blend the entire project together.
  5. Ground Cover Affordability: Every playground project — whether it’s your small backyard swing and slide set or a large civic maze of creative components — has budget limitations. There’s only so much money to spend, and it’s vitally important to get the best value for the money. Playground ground cover materials come in a wide range of prices. The most expensive are not necessarily the best, and this depends on the overall usage plan. But your budget should not be slashed at the expense of safety.

child safety is the most important factor when choosing the best playground surface material

  1. Ground Cover Safety: Child safety is the most important factor when choosing the best playground surface material. There are some obvious materials to avoid like concrete, stone or hard pavers, but there’s more to safety than just breaking a fall. Safety in playground ground cover materials includes health hazards like hidden foreign objects, toxic chemicals and even the attraction for pets to deposit waste. Don’t overlook safety when choosing what to use for playground ground cover. No one wants to see a child hurt, nor do they want to face a lawsuit resulting from the wrong choice in ground cover.

With these six important factors in mind, let’s now examine what materials are available for playground ground cover. This involves weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each to help you make the choice of the right materials for your playground surface.

Materials for Playground Ground Cover

There are two main types of playground ground cover. They’re categorized by the density of materials and are termed “loose materials” and “unitary materials.”

Loose Materials

Loose material means exactly what the name states. They’re granular in nature, and they are capable of being spread in various consistencies across uneven surfaces as well as being adjusted in depth. Pea gravel, sand, mulch and wood chips are examples of loose playground cover. Engineered wood fibers (EWF) are another excellent loose ground cover. Each has their own properties and are commonly found in playgrounds across America.

Loose ground covers are usually inexpensive and require minimal skill during installation. Often they’re placed by a bucket-equipped machine and then raked or shoveled into place. They do require regular maintenance — especially in high-traffic places where “kick-out” by scurrying feet under swings or at the foot of slides send granules flying.

Unitary Materials

Unitary materials are chemically bound elements that are formed into solid or semi-solid surfaces, such as tiles or rolled products like turf. Unitary materials also include solid surfaces that are poured as a liquid and are allowed to solidify as a soft, spongey surface like rubber. Artificial turf is a common unitary playground ground cover.

Unitary ground covers typically are more expensive than loose materials. Their composition is more complex and often requires experienced installation skill. They also need a better-prepared subsurface, but once they’re in place, their maintenance is lower due to high durability and strong ability to withstand kick-outs.

When choosing a loose or unitary cover for your playground, it’s important to consider some general pros and cons to each before looking at the specific advantages and disadvantages of the common ground cover types.

Pros and Cons of Loose and Unitary Ground Covers

Here are the main advantages of loose ground covers:

  • Inexpensive
  • Readily available
  • Easy to install
  • Very good impact attenuation

Some disadvantages of loose ground cover include:

  • Continuous maintenance
  • Sanitary issues from pet waste and toxins
  • Concealing hidden hazards like broken glass or sharp objects
  • Tendency to compact under wet or high traffic conditions

These are the advantages for unitary ground covers:

  • Long durability in all conditions
  • Easier to accommodate ADA requirements
  • Attractive appearance
  • Sure-footed grip for safety

Disadvantages of unitary ground covers are:

  • Higher purchase and installation cost
  • Specialized knowledge required for installation
  • May become less resilient over time
  • Availability may be an issue

You shouldn’t take each pro and con as a definite consideration. They’re more like a rule of thumb when weighing what playground ground cover is right for your application, given the important six factors. Perhaps you can adapt them to a scoring list to guide and isolate your choice.

Common Playground Ground Covers

That brings us to checking what specific materials are commonly available as playground ground covers. We’ll start with loose materials and then examine unitary ones. We’ll also make a brief mention of what ground cover materials we don’t recommend:

  1. Sand

Sand is the oldest ground cover used in playgrounds. Sand is natural, readily available, affordable and clean. It weathers well, but it has a tendency to pack hard when wet and is well known to stick onto clothing and track everywhere. Sand is no longer the popular choice for playgrounds as it’s outperformed by the new, synthetic materials.                                                     

Advantages of using sand as a ground cover include:

  • Low in cost
  • Easy to obtain and install
  • Non-flammable

Disadvantages of sand are:

  • Hard to walk on and poor for ADA compliance
  • Easy to swallow and get into eyes
  • Hides excrement and sharp objects

pea gravel is a common playground cover material

  1. Pea Gravel

Pea gravel is another old and common playground cover material. It consists of larger granules than sand, but not big enough to cause damage when cast about. The grains are the size of peas, which give it its name. Pea gravel is still popular, but it’s being replaced in many applications by synthetic materials.

Advantages of pea gravel include:

  • Economical to purchase
  • Easy to maintain and replace kick-out depressions
  • Less attractive to animals than sand

Disadvantages to pea gravel to consider:

  • Easily swallowed by young children
  • Difficult to walk through when applied thickly
  • Is not considered ADA compliant
  1. Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF)

EWF is an advanced and universally superior product to all loose materials available for today’s playgrounds. These organic fibers are manufactured from wood sources, but great care is used to ensure a pure and safe ground cover. EWF has high impact qualities to handle falls or hard impact. It’s also extremely resistant to harsh climates whether that be heat, cold, ice or rain.

EWF advantages include:

  • Excellent compaction rate for ADA approval
  • Superior fall protection
  • Very affordable surface option

Disadvantages to EWF may be:

  • Requires routine maintenance for ADA compliance
  • Capable of concealing foreign objects
  • Needs to be replenished

synthetic turf is low maintenance

  1. Synthetic Turf

Synthetic turf is a popular choice for a unitary ground cover. It’s more suitable for structured applications like child care centers where a flat surface exists. Turf is also very low in maintenance and easy to spot articles that could be hazardous to children. Many colors are available when choosing turf, and it can work nicely into an eye-pleasing design.

Some advantages to using synthetic turf can be:

  • Clean and low maintenance
  • Excellent in both indoor and outdoor play areas
  • Safe from hidden objects

There are a few disadvantages to using synthetic turf:

  • Higher cost per area
  • Requires professional installation
  • Less heat resistant
  1. Synthetic Tiles

Synthetic tiles are often used for playground ground covers. They’re harder than synthetic turf but smaller and easier to handle during installation. Most synthetic tiles are a rubber-based compound, and some are composed of recycled materials like automotive tires. Synthetic tiles are popular for installing over existing surfaces like concrete slabs or asphalt lots. They require a flat and smooth substrate but give a cushion effect when in place.

Advantages to synthetic tiles are:

  • Highly durable and impact resistant
  • Excellent for renovations where a solid base is already in place
  • Highly suitable for ADA approval

Disadvantages to synthetic tiles include:

  • Expensive when compared to other ground covers
  • Requires professional installation
  • Dirt and debris can accumulate in the joint cracks
  1. Poured-In-Place Rubber

Rubber is not a common playground ground cover. It’s used in projects where specialized conditions and high budgets exist. From an architectural standpoint, there are many colors available that can produce creative surface patterns. Poured in place rubber is more popular for high-end resorts and amusement parks than in civic playgrounds.

Here are the advantages of poured-in-place rubber ground cover for playgrounds:

  • Long life and durable wear
  • Very skid and abrasion resistant
  • Excellent compliance for disabled persons

There are a few disadvantages to using poured-in-place rubber:

  • Expensive playground surface
  • High skill required to install
  • Can become harder over time due to UV rays. Impact testing recommended.

Products Not Recommended

It’s worth mentioning a few products that experts don’t recommend for playground ground covers as well:

  • Grass is a hard surface and requires heavy maintenance.
  • Concrete is far too hard and very dangerous.
  • Wooden boards and decks at ground level are slippery when wet.
  • Bare earth is dirty and prone to invasive insects.
  • Loose-fill rubber can’t be made to accommodate ADA standards.

Deciding what to use for playground cover comes down to weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each cover material. It’s also necessary to consider each cover for the six factors — availability, maintenance, accessibility, appearance, affordability and safety. Overall, the clear choice is Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF).

Engineered Wood Fiber Is the Best Playground Ground Cover

More and more, playground designers and builders are turning to engineered wood fiber as their first choice for playground cover. It’s readily available, ADA compliant, economical, long-lasting, low in maintenance and above all —safe.

EWF has an attractive appearance and works well with any landscape theme. It’s slip-resistant and gives a soft, springy cushion to the ground. It also rebounds well in kick-out places. Engineered wood fiber is biodegradable and made from one of nature’s truly renewable resources.

You may think that EWF is more expensive than other ground cover alternatives, but it’s important to look at the entirety. Yes, the initial purchase cost may be slightly more than sand, pea gravel or regular wood chips, but its longevity more than makes up for the greater upfront cost. Additionally, EWF’s environmental impact is not just green-friendly to the forest. It’s healthy for the playground and especially healthy for children.

America’s top-quality engineered wood fiber playground ground cover is manufactured by Zeager Bros., Inc. in Middletown, Pennsylvania. It’s not just used on American playgrounds. We also ship EFW to playgrounds in countries around the world where it’s proven to be the best value for ground cover solutions.

As the leading manufacturer of engineered wood fiber for playgrounds, we adhere to the highest standards of quality control and compliance to the needs of America’s disabled. We sincerely believe that all children should have access to playgrounds, regardless of special needs. And playgrounds must be inclusive for children as well, not just accessible. Engineered wood fiber as a ground cover allows this to happen.

Zeager Bros., Inc. makes more than engineered wood fiber for playground applications. We have specialized synthetic grass polyethylene branded as RecBase that’s available in many colors, not just green. We have a Bonded Woodcarpet system designed for places where loose materials won’t stay, yet it allows water to permeate for proper drainage. We make wear mats that are anchored for installation where high kick-out occurs. And we have Woodcarpet Bonded Ramps to make ADA accessible entrances and exits to playgrounds safe and secure.

We have solutions to all surfacing problems in playgrounds and areas where kids and adults are active. Let’s review five real cases where Zeager Bros., Inc. has solved challenges with innovative and creative products.

Case Study #1

before and after daycare center

Problem: A daycare center was tired of their old, black rubber tiles in their 6-month to 2-year-old play area. The tiles had begun to separate, causing gaps that collected dirt, leaves and other trash, and they wanted something different for their children to experience.

Solution: Zeager’s Rebase® RGCT synthetic grass polyethylene (PE) color turf has a 5 mm pad attached to the turf backing, which allowed the daycare to keep their old surface in place. This saved them the time and labor cost to remove the old tiles. They could install the synthetic grass directly over the old tiles giving the play area a whole new look!

Now the kids are enjoying a new surface with a new ‘feel’ to give them a different experience while playing, and with the extra pad on the turf, it’s safer than before. Zeager’s Rebase® synthetic grass PE color turf comes in a variety of colors and is installed by Zeager Certified installers.

Case Study #2

before and after school on a large hillside

Problem: A school had a large hill near their playground that was unused. During some construction, they got the idea to install a hillside slide for their students to enjoy. The problem was determining what type of surfacing would look natural and stay put on a steep slope.

Solution: Zeager’s Bonded Woodcarpet® system is designed to give a natural look for areas where a loose fill material such as wood chips or stone won’t stay in place, while allowing water to permeate through the surface to prevent washout. The system combines engineered wood fiber with a binder that holds the wood fibers in place, making the surface firm and stable.

Zeager’s Bonded Woodcarpet® system is a great way to install a pervious, accessible and natural looking recreational surface that makes any landscape look beautiful & natural.

Zeager certified installers are available to help you make your next trail or gathering place a landscape masterpiece!

Case Study #3

asphalt daycare center before and after

Problem: A daycare center had an area outside their building that was asphalt and was formerly used as a parking lot. How could they utilize this for an area to allow their kids to play safely?

Solution: Zeager’s RecBase® RGCT synthetic grass polyethylene/nylon blend turf was an easy choice for outdoor playground ground cover to recommend for this area since it already comes with a backing pad attached to the turf. It also comes in a variety of colors. So the installers cleaned the asphalt and glued the turf directly to the asphalt — instant safe play area!

Zeager offers a variety of synthetic grasses depending on your needs. From daycare centers, school or park playgrounds to landscape and yard games, Zeager gives you great choices at an affordable price!

Zeager Bros., Inc. offers a turnkey solution to your recreational surface needs from start to finish. Ask your sales representative for more information.

Case Study #4

engineered wood fiber before and after

Problem: A large school district maintenance director has more playgrounds than he has maintenance workers — a lot more. Most of his playgrounds are engineered wood fiber and though the surface has been a safe choice, it’s been difficult to get around to all of them to top off when needed. What are some affordable things he can do to limit the maintenance without sacrificing safety?

Solution: Zeager recommended starting over with a product called Woodcarpet resilient drainage pad installed over a layer of fabric. This takes the place of traditional drainage stone and helps the wood fiber to drain, while at the same time, it increases fall protection. That way, in between top off times, the playground owner knows there is an extra layer of protection until top off.

Zeager also recommended TuffMat® anchored wear mats at each location where high use was predicted. This minimized the ‘kick-out’ usually associated with loose fill surfaces such as engineered wood fiber. This gave the director peace of mind knowing that high use areas were now more protected and ADA accessible. There was also an added layer of protection all over the playground with the installation of the foam drainage pad!

Case Study #5

pre school before and after accessible play area

Problem: A pre-school needed to make their play area more accessible since trying to maintain the wood fiber up to the sidewalk where kids entered the play area required constant maintenance. They also worried that if a child with a walker or wheelchair tried to enter the playground, it would be a hazard with the drop from the sidewalk down to the surface.

Solution: Zeager Bros., Inc. recommended a new product called Woodcarpet Bonded Ramp. The ramp comes as a kit including a four-foot wide ramp base, two side wings, dyed or natural wood fiber and binder to be applied over the foam base to form a firm, stable ramp.

Once in place, the ramp is partially covered with loose-fill wood fiber to give a nice transition between the surface and the sidewalk entrance. The wood fiber covering is available in red, black, dark brown or natural.

Solutions are what Zeager Bros., Inc. is all about. If you’re looking for the solution for the best playground ground cover materials, contact us today. You can also request a free quote to help plan for your next playground covering project.