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The Best Ground Cover for an Outdoor Playground

by Tara West, studioD

Playground surfacing can create visual appeal, but there is more to it than meets the eye. Different surfaces offer different advantages. Some help absorb the impact of a child's fall and are rated according to their ability to absorb the fall. Maintenance to keep the surface fully functioning can vary from needing frequent maintenance to very little maintenance. Before choosing a playground surface, there are many different aspects of the material you should consider.


For those on a budget, sand, pea gravel, wood chips or bark mulch are the best choices. These materials are readily available at the lowest initial price point. Sand has the advantage of offering great impact absorption properties but has the disadvantage of requiring higher maintenance costs. One undesirable side effect of sand is that it can get into clothes and eyes, and can be thrown or scattered elsewhere. Pea gravel is a better choice than sand if there are a lot of animals around. Pea gravel is less attractive to animals, but can harbor more insects than sand. Wood chips and bark mulch give an area a more natural appearance, but is flammable and may grow mold when wet.

Longevity and Maintenance

A unitary synthetic surface is best if you are looking for surfacing that will require little maintenance and will last a long time. Synthetic surfaces can be poured into place or laid out in tiles. The material is composed of rubber filler and chemicals that bind the rubber together. These materials are very durable and will not need to be replaced unless they are vandalized or if they lose impact absorption properties. The American Society for Testing and Materials does annual testing at manufacturing facilities to ensure the surfaces are in compliance. The only maintenance these surfaces will need is debris removal.

Impact Absorption

Unitary synthetic surfaces are rated by the American Society for Testing and Materials for impact absorption, so you'll know exactly what you are getting when you purchase these tested materials. Sand and loose rubber crumb or mulch can also provide superior impact absorption, but less consistently than a unitary surface. Sand and rubber crumb can be tossed and moved by visitors resulting in areas with less material. Sand and rubber also require more maintenance and may need to be replaced frequently in high-traffic areas.


If a playground needs to be wheelchair accessible, a unitary surface is required. The material must be poured in place or in tile format. Loose materials such as sand, gravel or mulch are not easily accessible via wheelchair or walkers. A poured-in-place surface is ideal for accessibility, but costs more than a tiled alternative.

About the Author

Tara West graduated from the University of Tulsa with a bachelor's degree in business administration and human resources. West specializes in parenting, green living and career development as a regular contributor at SocialMoms.com. She has been featured on a variety of websites including a childhood favorite, Reading Rainbow.

Photo Credits

  • Christopher Robbins/Digital Vision/Getty Images