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My neighborhood park's playground is scheduled to be replaced soon, and I've started to think about the pros and cons of different surface materials. I find the idea of rubber mats appealing. I found one study that reassured me about possible allergic reactions.

If anyone is up on the latest recommendations, or has any helpful personal experiences to share, I'd be grateful.

I'm in New York state, in case that helps.

If there's another SE site where this might fit better, please let me know.

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    How about asking over at Gardening and Landscaping? Some of those guys do that for a living... Not that I would want to push you away, I'm sure some of us have spent a lot of time on various playgrounds! – Stephie Jul 15 '15 at 18:01
  • Another possibility may be DIY... while that's probably more appropriate if you're making your own playground, they may well have (general) feedback on appropriate surfaces or fill (e.g. sand, wood chips, etc.). However, this could reasonably be considered a safety related question that parents would be readily interested in and/or have knowledge about! – Acire Jul 15 '15 at 18:10
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    I agree this is probably not a "parenting" question as such, but I hope it will stay and be answered in any SE site cause I currently have the exact same questioning for a small home playground... – Laurent S. Jul 15 '15 at 18:44
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    If you're going to use rubber at all, do not use shredded rubber mulch. It's in use at the community park where we live and it's awful. It gets into everything, spreads out of the playground area, smells terrible, and is in general the worst ground covering for a playground I've ever seen. – user11394 Jul 15 '15 at 23:49
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+50

I don't have any specific data, other than playing at about 10,000,000 parks in the last few years with my toddlers. (Numbers may be slightly exaggerated.)

However, my experience:

  • Rubber (or similar plastics) of the sort that is one giant rubber mat (ie, completely solid, nothing that comes off) is our favorite surface by far. Safe if you fall relative to a hard floor, fun to run on. Not sure about price, but it's definitely the most user friendly we've found. You do want to maintain it occasionally, but it seems lower maintenance than other options. ADA friendly.
  • Woodchips are annoying. They get in your sandals in the summer, and they're not as good at cushioning falls unless there's a ton of them, and they have to be replaced periodically. I've never used a rubber-pieces playground but I think the same as CreationEdge there - same problems as with woodchips. Not ADA friendly.
  • Sand is less cushiony than either of the above, but less annoying than woodchips. But it turns into mud. Also not ADA friendly.
  • Hard concrete or asphalt in some ways is better than woodchips to me, if the play surface isn't too high up - but it's much more painful to fall on. It doesn't get in your sandals, though, and it has very low maintenance. ADA friendly, but not considered sufficiently safe.

Overall I would choose a surface that is one solid surface and has some boing to it if at all possible. They can be made out of recycled materials, often, either plastics or rubber, so it's even eco-friendly.

From a brief search, it looks like the main choice is rubber poured in place, versus tiles, versus a rubberized plastic ("ATP"). The latter has the longest life, 10+ years, but may cost more. All three seem reasonable to me, and I've played with my kids on all three (assuming I can tell the difference, which I think I can) and enjoyed all three.

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    The pictures I've seen of the continuous rubber surface looked wonderful, but I hesitated to lobby for it with no direct experience with it. Now I feel well prepared! – aparente001 Jul 24 '15 at 2:13
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I happened to come across this thread and wanted to provide some information that I think would be helpful. I am a parent, licensed landscape architect, and certified playground safety inspector. It's important that you know that there are already many guidelines and regulations surrounding public playgrounds that should be adhered to. These standards have been around since the early 1980's when first published by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. You can get their most recent guide here: http://www.cpsc.gov/PageFiles/122149/325.pdf In addition the American Society for testing and Materials has issued several standards since the early 1990's related to play equipment manufacture, surfacing, fencing, etc. While not law in every state, these standards and guidelines have been used many times as a basis of lawsuits against playground operators. In addition, you should know that as of 2010 the Department of Justice has required that all playgrounds meet specific laws related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (these used to be recommendations).

Believe it or not, the design of a play area is no longer a simple task. Options like grass, asphalt, or concrete around elevated play equipment is no longer an option. However, these types of materials can be utilized outside of the fall zones. Other surfacing types such as engineered wood fiber, PIP rubber, tiles, and synthetic turf are all viable options to meet the ASTM standards for impact attenuation and ADA access. Each surface has pluses and minuses and there is a huge difference in price points for each. My recommendation is to start talking to knowledgeable playground professionals who know the standards and can help you make the best decisions that will not come back to bite you if there is an incident or the area is audited by someone like myself.

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Maybe I am completely off, but I would suggest not to use any of those materials. If it has to be done to respect some law, then so be it, but otherwise, I'd rather not.

I'd suggest to have the playground be in very simple (and not completely well curated, for reasons mentioned in point 2) grass. Some trees as well.

The reasons are many, but I'll mention a couple:

  1. a physical reason: falling on the soil can be harder that on plastic/rubber, and this teaches kids a wonderful lesson, that is "falling hurts". While it may sounds like a Spartan advice, the whole idea of becoming conscious of your body limits and of your surrondings passes via the fact that sometimes you bump into things. Also, it's quite difficult, at least for my daughters, to get serously injured at the playground/park as long as there's one of us keeping an eye on them all the time. Usually, from our experience, kids get injured on the toy where they climb/play on, not by falling on the ground. So, they learn the lesson, but not necessarily hurting much, which is, I'd say, good.

  2. an educative reason: grass gives you a chance to watch nature with your kids, watch flowers, sit in the grass, look at insects and their behaviour and so on. It's a great chance to spend time with the kids and look at how things grow. If the grass/trees are too much curated (as in the English grass) you won't see much nature there, that's why I mentioned not to curate it too much.

  3. there's also a creative reason: nature seldom repeats itself. Looking at how nature has evolved plants or insects or birds, and how each individual is different from the others, proves to be a wonderful occasion for kids to be creative in doing things. Not to mention the fact that you can do many, many things with natural material (my oldest daughter started with daisy chains and ended up creating rings and other geometrical figures: she didn't know the names, she is 4 and this episode happened way back, but she mentioned seeing those shapes in the park. Of course I took the chance to do a bit of geometry there :) )

Sources: 2 daughters, 1 zillion parks/playgrounds, living on the border of countryside in Europe and not having too much rubber in playgrounds. Also, another source that I found amusing: the teachers at our kindergarten, and then school, always had/have a project of "outdoor" teaching for kids ages 2-5 (like going out looking at trees, bark, and so on). I was absolutely happy seeing pictures of them out in the rain or the snow, playing/tasting/getting dirty/ecc. Other parents, of course, less. Another source I can't find now, is a park in UK (I am not in the UK) where there are several materials, nothing is curated, and kids have a chance to try anything and everything (say: light a fire). I find the concept amusing, even if I would suggest quite some supervision there. :) If I find the link I'll add it, the main point being that the kids in the park where actively engaged in using their creativity to come up with something and almost never bored.

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    The CDC factsheet has a much less rosy picture of how safe playgrounds are -- I don't intend to say grass is incredibly unsafe only rubber will save the children, but falls (on any surface) should be taken seriously as a risk. Your points about keeping portions of the park natural, though? Completely agree. – Acire Jul 24 '15 at 13:52
  • @mgm Don't worry! Of the surface area of my neighborhood park, 95% is grass, with lots of space for a ball game, kite flying, etc. There is a paved oval path for people to jog or walk a dog or a stroller. And there is a playground at one end. That's the part that's going to be re-done. – aparente001 Jul 24 '15 at 14:13
  • The part we're specifically discussing is the part immediately under the playground structures themselves - ie, where kids will be climbing 10 feet/3 meters off the ground. Rubber or other spongy surfaces make falls much less dangerous from those heights. Absolutely agree that grass should be on most of the park - but not directly under the structures. (It also would tend to die in those areas, as the shadows from the structure keep it from growing well, and the foot traffic would additionally hurt it...) – Joe Jul 24 '15 at 14:25
  • Grass is great for the "park" area of parks, but not for the "playground" area. Like Joe mentioned, grass dies. But also, weeds grow, bugs congregate, mud will inevitably form in high-traffic areas. The maintenance would be incredibly high. Grass also tends to get slippery from morning dew or rain, and sticks to shoes which gets on the equipment. So, when dealing with a playground set up, I would contend that grass is less safe and in the long term more expensive to upkeep. – user11394 Jul 24 '15 at 18:47
  • Agreed! I'm going to push for the continuous rubber surface. Grass is fine for my backyard swing set but for a park that serves 80 households in the immediate vicinity the rubber would work much better than grass. – aparente001 Jul 24 '15 at 21:49

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