Turf Wars- What’s in a playground surface?

Playground surfaces are not something most people give thought to. Its ubiquitous nature means that most families accept whatever is in place at face value and at first view. It’s typically only when kids come home from camp, nursery school, preschool and childcare centers with what seems like half of the playground in their shoes and pockets, or we read an alarming Opinion piece in the newspaper that we take notice of the surfaces that our children play on.

Which surface is best depends much on the environment it is used in. What’s good for an elementary school isn’t always best for a preschool. What works well in a mild climate isn’t great for one prone to very hot or very cold days. Additional factors such as durability and the ease and cost of installing, repairing and replacing the surface in the event of damage or contamination are also worth consideration. When the various options and their pros and cons are understood, then the best decisions about the places that children play can be made.

The most common surfaces in children’s play areas are sand, wood mulch, rubber mulch, poured rubber, grass, and artificial turf (AKA “astroturf”). Let’s compare!

Sand

Pros: Sand is a relatively soft landing surface, and a poor conductor of heat, so it doesn’t get too hot on bright days. It’s fun to play with and in, so it’s also a learning toy! Most children usually love it, but some with sensory issues may not. When it runs low, sand is easy and relatively cheap to replace.

Cons: Sand comes home every day in shoes and pockets, and gets all over every parent’s car and inside the classroom as well. Throwing sand into eyes and mouths can be a common problem on the playground. When sand gets wet it holds water well enough to make pants damp hours after the rest of the yard is dry. If left uncovered overnight, local stray animals may use it as a bathroom.

Wood Mulch

Pros: Wood mulch is also a soft landing surface, and a poor conductor of heat, so it never feels hot or cold. It dries out faster than sand too. It’s “natural” so long as it hasn’t been treated with any stain or dye, and it’s very easy to replace and refill when it thins out over time. Wood mulch for children’s playgrounds is required to meet certain state health and safety standards. It’s made from trees, so it’s more renewable and less expensive than other surfaces.
Cons: Similar to sand, wood mulch also gets thrown a lot. It doesn’t have the bonus benefit of also being used as a toy, like sand. It often comes home in pockets and shoes. Some kids may munch on it; which is likely not harmful to them, but can cause their parents concern.

Rubber Mulch

Pros: Shredded rubber mulch is soft and safe landing surface; especially under play structures.. Made completely from recycled materials such as old shoes and car tires, so it’s widely considered environmentally friendly. Comes in a variety of colors. Easily replenished but moderately expensive. Does not track into classrooms and cars on shoes and clothing. Doesn’t get into eyes when thrown.

Cons: Darker colored rubber mulch can become hot in the sun. One major drawback: small children sometimes eat this material. Though the surface has mostly good characteristics, the choking/mouthing hazard is a major downfall for infants and babies. Rubber is made from petrochemicals and some parents object to their children playing in this environment. Black rubber can sometimes dirty hands and discolor light colored clothing; especially children’s socks.

Poured Rubber

Pros: This surface is highly engineered, very bouncy and great for big-kid play. It comes in many bright colors and can be poured or colored to look like roads or paths or make patterns or designs. It can also be made from recycled materials, and is easy to clean with a garden hose. Awesome for use with push carts or toys with wheels, and for water play.

Cons: Poured rubber is the most expensive playground surface, high-traffic areas do wear out and can’t be replaced easily without major renovation to the entire play area. Dark colors can become extremely hot in the sun, it’s unsafe for bare skin and feet. It is not as soft as the sand or mulch options. The surface is fixed, and can’t be manipulated by children like mulch or sand.

Grass

Pros: Grass is beautiful, cool, and natural. It feels healthy and brings kids closer to nature. It contains small bugs of various types that young kids will enjoy finding and playing with. It is less expensive to grow than installing many other play surfaces.

Cons: Grass requires significant landscaping care. High traffic areas will quickly wear out down to the dirt. Mud can occur for days after it rains, leading to dirty (but happy) kids and clothes. Some children are allergic to grasses and pollen. Not ideal for ride-on and wheeled toys. Children love to rip it out in clumps.