Keyword Site Search

An Ecological Approach to Surfacing and Edge Treatment

Laurel Kelly, ASLA

Edges and surfaces are defining elements of outdoor spaces. For many of us, the texture of the asphalt paving that completely covered our schoolyards remains a vivid memory. However, as designers of outdoor play settings for children in the 21st century, we look for alternative approaches that respect the environment and promote the healthy development of children. This article explores edge and surface treatments as an aspect of the ecosystem of children rather than merely promoting the use of recycled materials. Approaching the issue from the point of view of the entire habitat for play allows for a more creative and useful discussion.

Variety is the key: As in most ecosystems, the diversity of components in an outdoor play environment determines its health. A complete outdoor play environment includes seventeen different play elements: entrances, pathways, signage, enclosures, play equipment, multipurpose game settings, ground covers/surfacing,

landforms, trees/vegetation, garden settings, animal settings,

water settings, sand settings, play props and manipulative settings, stage settings, gathering, meeting, and working places

storage settings.

The design of and choice of materials for each of these settings are limited only by our imaginations and our obligation to provide safe and challenging play opportunities for children with different needs and abilities. Within the context of the entire play setting, edge treatment and surfaces play an important role in creating a safe and accessible play environment. They protect from falls, facilitate access, create an image, provide definition for the site, and allow nature to become part of the play experience.

The Environment of Play: Both soft and hard play surfaces are needed to support different types of play activity. The surfacing in each part of the play environment must respond to the needs of the intended activities and user groups. Considerations include: durability, toxicity, allergenicity, slip-resistance, all weather use, climatic zone, maintenance, aesthetics, accessibility, required shock absorbency, and environmental sustainability.

By providing a diversity of surface materials that meet the needs of different areas, users, and activities, designers can create a sense of place that includes a wide variety of play opportunities for the greatest number of users. Soft surfaces help promote and extend social interaction. Hard surfaces or accessible shock-absorbing surfaces are necessary for ease of access and activities such as ball play. Soft surfaces and natural ground covers constitute a source of play props and sensory stimulation, while hard surfaces are necessary for particular games. The potential to support integration of children with and without disabilities varies from surface to surface.

The reintroduction of nature into children's play environments through the use of native materials helps to promote a sense of place. Boulders, plantings, logs, and recycled lumber enliven the edges of pathways and play areas. Nearly any material can be used for edge treatment so long as it is without sharp edges and is placed outside the use zones of play equipment

Natural ground covers can also provide contact with nature .Turf and other natural ground covers create ecosystems at a smaller scale than those defined by trees and shrubs, although they are vulnerable and prone to wear. Turf normally contains a mixture of plants (not always grasses/clover is also common). Creeping plants have a far greater power to rejuvenate than do tussock-forming species and are always an advantage in heavily used areas. Attention to circulation design can help avoid unnecessary erosion and the need for replanting.

Designers should include ground cover and edge-defining plants that change with the seasons, which enhances the sense of passage of time. Other good choices are species that attract small insects, which are a source of learning and excitement for children. Flowering and scented species add sensory diversity. Scented species are particularly attractive to children with low vision. However, poisonous species and species with thorns must be avoided.

Pest and weed management practices must be carefully evaluated to avoid exposing children to toxins. All weeds should be removed manually. Small animals should be managed by trapping. Certified pest management personnel should evaluate other pest problems. Should chemical treatment be necessary, the least toxic alternative should be chosen. After treatment, the play area should be closed until safe for use.

Only a few surface treatments in the use zone of play equipment comply with recent safety and accessibility regulations intended to protect children from serious injuries as a result of falls. Most designers and managers of play areas use rubber surfacing and/or wood fiber alone or in combination with sand to provide an accessible and safe route through play equipment settings.. Outside the equipment use zone, however, all types of edging and surface covering are possible within the limits of budget and the ability to provide maintenance.

The following are some examples of play settings with surfaces and edges that expand the look and playability of the setting.

Danville Ranch Park, Danville, CA

To enhance the feeling of a ranch, the edges pick up the theme and include spit rail fencing, rocks, and grasses. Saddles provide seating around the coral. The surfacing in the coral is made of decomposed granite.

Shipwreck Village, Chase Palm Park, Santa Barbara, CA

A nautical theme with a sea of sand and rubber rocks, whales, beaches, a fishing pier, and a sunken ship safely and accessibly tied together by colored rubber surfacing.. A giant nautilus provides thematic water play with its surfacing simulating the ocean's floor. Edge definition is provided by waves of concrete, which become large waves for seating.

Bog Garden, SAS Childcare Center, Research Triangle, NC

A wetlands play area that provides a boulder edge for sitting and for protecting the nearby cattails.

Tule Elk Garden, Yuba Buena Children's Center, San Francisco, CA

The quiet sitting area is a soft edge to the concrete path. The surfacing material is dirt with wood chips, which provides a pleasant smell. The vetatine edge gives a feeling of enclosure so children can play in the open area or sit quietly and read or hear a story.


Susan M. Goltsman, FASLA, is a founding principal of Moore Iacofano Goltsman (MIG), Inc., with over twenty years of experience in environmental design, planning, and education. She specializes in designing environments for children that encourage exploration, imagination, and interaction with others.

Laurel Kelly, ASLA, is a licensed Landscape Architect specializing in outdoor learning environments, children's play areas, California native plants, and sustainable design.

Related Stories

December 10, 2019, 8:02 pm PDT

Website problems, report a bug.
Copyright © 2019 Landscape Communications Inc.
Privacy Policy