Pros & Cons: Natural Grass or Soil for Playground Surfaces

March 4, 2021

Should You Choose Natural Surface for Your Playground?

It may seem like the ground surface options for your playground area are endless, with options ranging from natural grass and dirt to poured-in place (PIP) rubber. Each option has its own maintenance needs, expected longevity, accessibility ratings, and installation requirements. Naturally, we think your best option is poured-in-place surfacing. Still, we also place great value in making a well-informed decision. That’s why we created a thorough review of natural grass, examining the pros and the cons.

Natural Grass Playground Surface
Natural Grass Playground Surface

What is Natural Grass and Playground Soil?

Natural grass and soil are what you imagine, a soil-covered land planted with grasses and other durable plants.

Two of the most popular options are grass seed and sod, a grass pre-grown by farmers and then cut in rows and sold as rolls. People use natural grass around houses, apartments, commercial buildings, offices, parks, and other public landscapes. Valued for its aesthetic pleasure, natural grass maintains the ability to tolerate foot traffic and reduces heat island effects.

Safety and Accessibility of Natural Grass for Playgrounds

Pros:

  • Using natural grass and dirt has a significant benefit of cooler and softer surfaces. Natural grass reduces heat island effects in urban and suburban areas.
  • Certain artificial surfaces can reach temperatures 50-60 degrees above natural grass. Its lower temperatures lead to less risk of skin burns or other injuries often associated with harder, chemical-based playing surfaces.
  • Playground ground surfaces with natural turf or grass can also serve as a buffer to their communities. The grass can act as a filter to trap harmful pollutants in its dense root system and capture contaminants before they end up in groundwater systems.

Cons:

  • Natural grass may be soft enough for a picnic, but it’s not ideal for landing when you jump from a swing.
  • ASTM, the American Society for Testing and Materials, has considered marking natural grass as unsafe for playgrounds.
  • Playground grass doesn’t provide as much impact absorption compared to other surfaces, meaning children can get seriously injured if they fall. You can’t manipulate the thickness or add underlayment to meet fall height safety regulations with natural grass.
  • Some studies state well-maintained grass with about six inches of subsoil may be a suitable surface for falls up to six feet. However, dry or freezing weather will make the surface significantly harder, negatively affecting the impact level.
  • Playground grass also isn’t easy on wheelchairs, unlike other surfaces such as playground rubber tiles. The high friction surface of grass requires a lot of effort to push, making it less than ideal for an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant, accessible playground.
  • It’s also prone to pests, bacterial buildup, and uneven spots, increasing the risk of tripping.

Cost of Natural Grass for Playground Flooring

Pros:

  • The best part about natural grass is that it won’t cost much to repair. As long as you replace grass in smaller patches, it’ll cost $0.50 per square foot for seed or $2 per square foot for sod.
  • If you need to replace the whole playground area, check out the installation’s total cost below. Your playground grass can also earn you LEED points for heat island reduction.

Cons:

  • Before you install your grass, you’ll need to consider irrigation. An irrigation system or sprinkler system can cost an average of $2 per square foot, equating to $2,000 for 1,000 square feet of grass.
  • While easier to install since sod is pre-grown, the sod comes with a higher price tag, starting at $3.50 per square foot with a professional installer. A 1,000 square foot residential playground grass area with sod installation could cost $3,500 or $5,500 with irrigation.
  • In comparison, a commercial playground area of 5,000 square feet with natural grass or sod could cost $17,500 or $27,000 with irrigation. The more affordable option of seeding natural grass will cost about $0.05 per square foot if you do it yourself, or $50 for a 1,000 square foot area.
  • You’ll need to thoroughly water the seed for the first eight weeks for it to grow correctly, creating an additional cost for irrigation.

Quality and Maintenance of Grass Playground Surfaces

Browning spots on natural grass surface

Pros:

  • Natural grass is very heat tolerant, with it often 50 to 60 degrees cooler than surrounding artificial surfaces.
  • When it comes to repairing problem areas in your playground grass, in most cases, you can fill in bare spots with seed, or in the case of St. Augustine grass, you can add sod or plugs.
  • There may be more benefits to natural grass and soil in the future due to ongoing research to create improved grass types called cultivars for playgrounds and public parks.

Cons:

  • Natural grass is one of the highest maintenance options when it comes to playground surfaces. Expect to blow or rake eaves off the grass in the fall and mow the grass weekly.
  • Other tasks may include: edging, fertilizing, weeding, watering, and more.
  • Depending on the weather conditions, grass can die, scorch, or become muddy. With mother nature, there are no guarantees.
  • No grass is frost resistant, but whether frost harms your grass or not depends on the grass species. Some grasses can handle frost better than others.
  • Natural grass can also be a drain on fossil fuels, often requiring fertilizers, pesticides to avoid weed growth, as well as fuel to mow the grass.

Installation of Natural Grass and Soil Playground Surfacing

 Pros:

  • You can plant natural grass by seeding the area or laying down sod.
  • You can easily plant grass seeds yourself but bring in a professional if you choose sod over grass seed.
  • You can find sod and grass seed at any hardware store, or if you prefer, you can call your favorite landscape professionals.
Natural grass and dirt as playground flooring
Natural grass has the benefit of being able to handle foot traffic

Cons:

  • Natural grass is high maintenance when it comes to installation, too.
    • First, consider installing a new irrigation system and drainage to avoid mud. From there, the steps are about the same for seed and sod installation. Remove stones, roots, and other debris to create a smooth surface.
    • Next, rake the surface until it falls below the desired grade and then install edging. Add a good topsoil base, grade the surface, and add lime for a more alkaline pH.
    • Finally, you can lay rows of sod or spread the seed over the prepared area. For seed, you’ll need to rake the soil to ensure the seed comes in contact with the ground and topdress with a layer of straw to aid germination. For both seed and sod, water three times a day for the first two weeks. Sod will need some starter fertilizer to ensure the grass has the proper nutrients. Using seed will require you to stay off the surface for the first two months until roots are thoroughly established.
  • The installation process will likely take a day or two, mainly doing the site prep, but it all depends on the size of your playground surface.

Conclusion

When it comes to ensuring the children on your playground have a safe place to play, you want to be sure the surfacing is a top priority. The surface should provide a comfortable, soft cushion to walk on and, when installed correctly, should be compliant with ADA standards for handicap accessible areas. Get a free quote today for premium poured-in-place surfacing made to keep your playground safe, fun, and enjoyable for everyone.

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