Ground Rules

How To Choose

In the November 2010 Public Playground Safety Handbook, the commission states, “The surfacing under and around playground equipment is one of the most important factors in reducing the likelihood of life-threatening head injuries. A fall onto a shock-absorbing surface is less likely to cause a serious head injury than a fall onto a hard surface.”

When money gets tight, it’s tempting to short-change playground surfaces, to try and squeeze another year out of what’s there. But recreation professionals know that deferred maintenance on playground surfaces is a slippery slope.

“Our primary focus is always safety,” says Amy Girouard, associate program director of the Summit Family YMCA and Fayette Outdoor YMCA in Fayette County, Ga. “So if the play park needs attention, then that moves to the top of our priority list.”

Each year in late spring just prior to their summer camps, Girouard says they have playground-grade engineered wood fibers blown into their 13,000-square-foot wood castle play park that is open to the public and is also used for summer camp.

She says being privately funded through donations makes it even more challenging to find funds for this annual necessity.

The CPSC breaks types of surfacing into two general categories:


  • Unitary
  • Loose-fill materials.


Unitary materials are rubber mats and tiles or a combination of absorbent material held in place by a binder that may be poured in place on site to form a continuous rubberized surface.

Most of these products require professional installation to ensure proper shock absorption and to comply with the warranty; some must be placed on a hard surface—but not all—so be sure to do your homework before buying.

Loose-Fill Materials

Loose-fill materials include engineered wood fiber, a wood product that can look a lot like landscape mulch, but it is designed specifically for use as an approved surface for playgrounds.

There are also rubber mulch products manufactured for playgrounds. Most of these types of products can be self-installed, but the CPSC strongly recommends against installing them on hard surfaces unless they are prepared per guidance in their handbook.

The pros and cons associated with each of the possible playground surfacing products on the market would be too lengthy for this column; suffice it to say that every playground is different so deciding on the best surface is a case-by-case process.

At the end of the day, common sense and safety should rule.

“We simply cannot compromise on safety,” Girouard stresses. “We have to do everything we can to ensure a safe play environment and avoid injuries.”

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. He earned his Master’s in Public Administration and now lives in Peachtree City, Ga. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642, or


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