Choosing the Right Playground Surface: A Comprehensive Guide

A playground is a haven of joy and laughter, a place where children can engage their imaginations, burn off energy, and interact with their peers. However, ensuring a playground is safe and suitable for a child’s play is a significant responsibility. One critical aspect of this safety lies in the playground’s surface. The surface material of a playground can influence the risk of injury, the playground’s durability, maintenance requirements, and even the types of play that the playground can accommodate.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore three popular playground surface options: rubber, wood chips, and sand. Each surface has its unique advantages and challenges, making them better suited for different situations. By understanding these factors, you can make a well-informed decision about which surface material is the best fit for your playground apparatus to keep children safe whilst they play.

Rubber Surfaces

Rubber surfaces for playgrounds come in two main types: poured-in-place rubber and rubber mulch. Both types offer excellent shock absorption, making them a popular choice for many playgrounds.

Pros of Rubber Surfaces

  1. Safety: Rubber is a highly shock-absorbent material, making it an excellent choice for preventing injuries from falls.
  2. Accessibility: Rubber surfaces, particularly poured-in-place rubber, provide a smooth, even surface that is accessible for wheelchairs and other mobility aids.
  3. Durability: Rubber is a long-lasting material that can withstand heavy use and harsh weather conditions.
  4. Low Maintenance: Rubber surfaces don’t have to be replaced as often as other types of playground surfaces.
  5. Variety of Colors and Designs: Poured-in-place rubber can be customised with a wide range of colours and designs, making it a fun and attractive option for playgrounds.

Cons of Rubber Surfaces

  1. Cost: The initial installation cost of rubber surfaces can be significantly higher than other options.
  2. Heat Retention: Rubber surfaces can become hot in direct sunlight, which can lead to burns.
  3. Can Be Less Natural: For playgrounds in natural settings, rubber surfaces may not blend as well with the surroundings as more organic materials.

Wood Chips

Wood chips, often referred to as engineered wood fibre (EWF), are another popular choice for playground surfaces.

Pros of Wood Chips

  1. Natural Aesthetic: Wood chips can blend well with natural settings, enhancing the aesthetic of a playground.
  2. Cost-Effective: Compared to rubber, wood chips are a more affordable option.
  3. Shock Absorbent: When properly maintained, wood chips can provide good shock absorption.

Cons of Wood Chips

  1. Maintenance: Wood chips need to be topped up and raked regularly to maintain an even, safe surface.
  2. Accessibility: Wood chips can be challenging for wheelchairs and other mobility aids to navigate.
  3. Splinters and Hidden Objects: There’s a risk of splinters with wood chips, and small objects can be easily hidden within them, posing a potential safety hazard.


Sand is a traditional playground surface that offers a unique play experience.

Pros of Sand

  1. Play Value: Sand can be moulded and shaped, adding an extra element of play to the playground.
  2. Natural and Aesthetic: Like wood chips, sand blends well with natural surroundings and can be a visually pleasing choice.
  3. Affordable: Sand is one of the most cost-effective playground surfaces.

Cons of Sand

  1. Maintenance: Sand needs to be raked regularly to remove debris and maintain an even surface.
  2. Limited Shock Absorbency: While sand provides some shock absorption, it’s not as effective as rubber or wood chips when compacted.
  3. Accessibility: Similar to wood chips, sand can be difficult for wheelchairs and other mobility aids to navigate.
  4. Weather Conditions: Sand can become hard when wet, reducing its shock-absorbing capabilities. In contrast, in hot weather, it can become too hot for children to play comfortably.
  5. Messiness: Sand can easily get into shoes and clothing, making it a less desirable choice for some parents and caretakers.

Selecting the right playground surface is a critical decision that can significantly influence the safety, functionality, and longevity of a playground. It requires a comprehensive understanding of the playground’s needs and constraints. Here, we delve deeper into the critical factors that you should consider when choosing the ideal playground surface in the UK.

Factors to Consider When Choosing the Right Playground Surface

1. Safety

Safety is the primary concern for any playground. A large percentage of playground injuries are due to falls, so choosing a surface with adequate shock-absorbing capabilities is crucial.

  • Fall Height: The potential fall height in your playground, determined by the equipment installed, will influence your choice of surface material. For equipment with higher fall heights, surfaces with excellent shock-absorbing qualities like rubber are ideal.
  • Surface Flatness: Uneven surfaces can lead to tripping hazards. Surfaces like poured-in-place rubber provide consistent flatness, reducing such risks.
  • Compliance with BS EN 1177: This is the UK standard for playground surfaces, intended to minimise the risk of injury to children from falls. Ensure that the surface you choose complies with this standard.

2. Budget

The cost of playground surfacing isn’t just about the initial installation—it also includes long-term maintenance and replacement costs.

  • Initial Cost: Rubber surfaces typically have higher initial costs than wood chips or sand. However, they often provide better durability and safety benefits.
  • Long-Term Costs: Cheaper surfaces like sand and wood chips may require regular topping up and more frequent replacement, leading to higher long-term costs.
  • Maintenance Costs: Consider the cost of regular maintenance, which includes inspection, cleaning, repair, and replacement of the surfacing material.

3. Accessibility

In line with the UK’s Equality Act 2010, playgrounds should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their physical capabilities.

  • Mobility Device Navigation: Poured-in-place rubber and rubber tiles provide smooth surfaces that are easy for wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches to navigate.
  • Surface Stability: Loose-fill materials like wood chips or sand can shift and create an unstable surface, making it challenging for individuals with mobility impairments.

4. Environmental Impact

Environmental considerations are increasingly important. Some surface materials have a more significant environmental impact than others.

  • Material Source: Consider where the material comes from. For example, rubber can be made from recycled tires, which is a more sustainable option.
  • Life Cycle: Consider the life cycle of the material, from production to disposal. Materials that last longer or can be recycled at the end of their life have less environmental impact.

5. Aesthetics and Play Experience

The look and feel of a playground can influence how attractive it is to children and how much they enjoy playing there.

  • Aesthetic Appeal: The colour and texture of a surface can add to the visual appeal of a playground. Poured-in-place rubber, for example, can be customised with a variety of colours and patterns.
  • Play Experience: Some surfaces can add to the play value. Sand, for example, offers additional opportunities for creative play.

By considering these factors, you can select a playground surface that not only meets safety and budget requirements but also provides an inclusive, environmentally-friendly, and enjoyable play experience.


Choosing the right playground surface involves balancing safety, cost, accessibility, maintenance needs, and aesthetics. While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, understanding the pros and cons of rubber, wood chips, and sand can help guide your decision.

Remember that regardless of the material you choose, regular inspection and maintenance are crucial. By keeping the playground surface in good condition, you can help ensure that the playground remains a safe, fun, and welcoming space for all children.