Choosing a type of flooring for a space that will be used by multiple children regularly presents several challenges. You need a material that can withstand rough play, not to mention the all-too-common stains that kids leave in their wake. The flooring should be easy to clean so that it can be sanitized periodically to ensure a healthy environment. You also want a floor that is comfortable and preferably soft to help prevent injuries. The use of bright colors can help to stimulate creativity and inspire activity. Here are five good options.
Rubber Floor Tiles
Rubber tiles are often used on playgrounds and gyms, where children are their most active and need to be protected. Plush and yielding, rubber floor tiles come in a variety of thicknesses that determine how soft the floor will be. Interior spaces, such as in schools and nurseries, generally require only 3/4- or 1/2-inch thickness to create a safe and comfortable surface. For playgrounds and other highly active areas, the tiles may need to be two inches or even thicker.
In addition to its softness, rubber is also great for commercial children’s spaces because it is resistant to almost all staining agents. From spilled food and drinks to bodily fluids, rubber tiles will hold the offending material on its surface until it can be wiped clean. While there are a few substances that can stain this material, such as grease and oil, those are not usually found in most public children’s spaces.
Resilient Vinyl Sheets
Vinyl is a resilient flooring option that is resistant to virtually all staining agents. It is easy to clean, and it can be sanitized with any standard cleansing agent without fear of damaging its surface. Vinyl sheets can also be installed over a padded cork underlayment layer that will give it a soft springy feel, making the room safe for kids. However, the price of underlayment can increase the cost of the flooring by as much as double.
Some people are hesitant to use vinyl in a commercial children’s location because it is known to off-gas small amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are toxic elements that are released from the material after installation. But higher-quality products may off-gas significantly lower levels of VOCs, and even the amount given off by even the worst offenders is minimal and diminishes as the flooring ages. However, there is evidence showing that VOCs from vinyl can irritate children who have respiratory sensitivity.
Natural Linoleum Flooring
Natural linoleum is a resilient flooring option that shares many of the qualities of vinyl. It is stain-resistant and easy to maintain, and it can be sealed with an acrylic sealer for additional stain protection. It can also be installed over padded underlayment to create a soft surface for kids to play. The primary difference between linoleum and vinyl is that linoleum is an all-natural product that does not off-gas any toxic compounds, and its manufacture is more environmentally friendly.
Carpeting is a common choice for nursery schools, daycare centers, and anywhere you find small children regularly. Soft, safe, and familiar, the plush surface of carpet lets kids hop down on the floor to assemble a puzzle, build a block palace, or line up toy soldiers. It also makes for a cozy surface during nap time.
The drawback to carpet is that it is susceptible to liquid damage in a variety of ways. Stains are always a potential problem, especially with lighter colors of carpet. You also have to be worried about the possibility of moisture penetrating down into the padding, where it can start to damage the subflooring below or promote the growth of mold or bacteria. Special water-resistant carpet can help to alleviate these problems to some extent, and steam-cleaning regularly can help keep the carpet clean and free of contaminants.
Carpet is also widely considered a flooring material that can trap dust and allergens, so it may not be the best surface for children with notable allergies. As the Mayo Clinic notes, "Carpeting can be a reservoir for allergy-causing substances (allergens) that trigger asthma."
Another relatively soft material, cork is an all natural-flooring choice that has a uniquely yielding feel that children find delightful. Slightly bouncy and squishy underfoot, cork can be fun to play on and will help protect kids from accidents, providing both traction and a moderate degree of cushion. Unfortunately, the soft surface of cork means that it can be damaged fairly easily, so it's best suited to areas that aren't subject to rough play, large toys, or heavy foot traffic.
Cork is an environmentally safe flooring material and entirely non-allergenic. But it can also be damaged by water and liquid spills unless regularly sealed. Cork is one of the very best flooring materials for spaces where children play, but you should expect its lifespan to be limited.
Liang, Yirui, and Ying Xu. Emission of Phthalates and Phthalate Alternatives from Vinyl Flooring and Crib Mattress Covers: The Influence of Temperature. Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 48, no. 24, 2014, pp. 14228–14237., doi:10.1021/es504801x
Bukowski, Steven J. Flooring Instant Answers. McGraw-Hill, 2003.
James T C Li, M.D. Asthma Triggers: Are Hard Flooring Surfaces Better than Carpet? Mayo Clinic