Safety surfacing is a cushion that can absorb some of the impact of falls. While grass may be considered soft and comfortable, the dirt just beneath grass is actually quite hard and potentially dangerous. In its place, safety experts recommend surfaces with “give”—most commonly, engineered wood fiber, sand, artificial turf, rubber multch or rubber matting. At proper depths, safety materials lessen the chances of life-threatening (mainly head) injuries at your playground.
It’s important to note that no surface can guarantee safety, especially against orthopedic injuries like broken wrists and ankles. In many cases, these injuries result more from awkward falls than from falls of great height or speed. Government and industry safety standards instead concentrate on the likelihood of life-threatening injuries and measure things like g-forces (acceleration due to gravity) and HIC (head injury criteria) to recommend minimum depth of safety surfacing for particular playgrounds. Safety recommendations are generally based on the maximum height of your playstructure, as the distance a child falls is the most important factor in the g-force and HIC measurements.
There is no single best surface for your playground. Factors like weather, the availability of maintenance staff, and even budgets play a role in that decision. Your local playground representative can certainly guide you carefully through the process, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission also has information on its site.
In choosing appropriate protective surfaces, you should take a look at the long-term issues involved and not make decisions on today’s costs alone. Original costs must be weighed against the life-cycle maintenance costs of the different surface materials available. Factors to include: resiliency, wheelchair accessibility and heat absorbency and radiation here in Arizona.
While playgrounds offer hundreds of options (slides, swings, ladders, colors), playground surfacing is much more basic, and perhaps much more important.