In years past when playgrounds were built over asphalt and gravel, all that was required to maintain them was a resilient pooper-scooper and a hose. But with today’s technologically driven playground surfaces, specific maintenance practices are needed to keep the numerous available surfaces clean and safe.

Playground surfaces are now available in various types of materials, but ultimately they all fall into two categories–unitary or loose-fill. Loose-fill materials are small, independently moving objects, such as sand, wood chips, engineered wood fiber (EWF), bark mulch, pea gravel and rubber mulch. While, on average, loose-fill surfacing material has a lower initial cost, it tends to have more maintenance costs.

I recall complaints not long ago from parents that frequented a park I managed. The neighborhood cats (and I would imagine dogs as well, from the size of some of the excrement I pulled from the bottom of the playground) turned the playground area into a kitty-litter box. This excavation of fecal matter only added to the daily routine of raking debris and maintaining adequate depth under and around the playground’s equipment use zones. Only after I began posting pictures of the various cats and their exploits did the local parents, many of whom complained to me fervently before, take notice and the situation improved.


While fine sand is still the choice for some playground operators, due to financial or budgetary constraints, several key maintenance practices should be followed. Besides maintaining proper use-zone depths around playground equipment and raking the sand for debris (both man- and pet-made), sand should be raked or machine-groomed regularly. Routine grooming not only keeps the sand free from dangerous debris, but also keeps the sand level. Children often dig holes during play, and these same holes then create hazards for other children. Also, the transition ramps and pathways in and around sand playground areas should be swept often. A fine layer of sand can build up and make a child’s first step onto these pathways slippery.

A final maintenance issue directly related to sand playground surfaces is the annual replacement of the material due to wind and children’s activities. Many times, kids go home with sand pouring out of every pocket, shoe and crevice. Within several months, it can become quite apparent that the wind is not only to blame for the loss of material in your playground. Additionally, it can become dangerous to pull material from some parts of the playground use zones in order to fill gaps in others.

Wood Chips And Similar Materials

Wood chips, bark mulch and EWF have similar maintenance routines. As with sand, they need to be raked daily for debris and to maintain the critical height rating around playground equipment. Some other maintenance issues distinct to these surface materials are:

Randomly and almost overnight, large amounts of material disappear from your playground. Neighbors of the park may use material for their yards.

Material will, over time, combine with foreign debris and dirt, sometimes making it impossible to thoroughly clean.

Various types of insects are attracted to and live in these materials.

Due to the elements, foot traffic and daily wear and tear, the material becomes compacted and pulverized, and finally will decompose.

Rubber Mulch

The last of the major loose-fill materials used in today’s playgrounds is rubber mulch. Rubber mulch has come a long way in recent years; most products now are non-toxic, fade-resistant and close to 100 percent wire-free. While the material is different from other loose-fill material, many of the basic components to maintaining it are the same. It should be regularly raked to remove debris and to maintain proper depth in all use zones. Unlike sand and wood products, rubber mulch tends to stay in and around the playground area, lessening the need for yearly replacement. Additionally, rubber mulch does not attract insects and animals.

In general, loose-fill playground surfaces have a lower initial start-up cost than unitary surfaces, but, over time, the regular maintenance and upkeep can become expensive. If daily and weekly care is given to these materials, they can provide a safe surface for your patrons. Lastly, it is always a good idea to keep some extra material on hand; you never know when a neighbor of the park decides to landscape his yard with the help of your playground.

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