Playing It Safe: Part 2 - Protective Playground Surfaces - Which Option is Right for You?

Safety Surfacing Introduction

The protective playground surface is often the most overlooked element of backyard playground safety. While approximately 80% of public playgrounds have some form of shock-absorbing protective surfacing under playground equipment, only 9% of home backyard playgrounds do, according to a 2001 playground injury study conducted by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC). The study found that, of the approximately 50,000 injuries per year associated with home backyard playground equipment, 69% of the injuries were a result of falls to a non-protective surface below the equipment.

The most common backyard playground surface options are grass and dirt, but neither surface offers adequate protection against serious injury due to falls, even falls that occur from 30 inches or less above the ground. Fractures of the arms and hands, and lacerations and contusions of the head and face are the most commonly reported injuries that result from a child falling from playground equipment to a non-protective playground surface such as grass or dirt as reported by the CPSC.

The good news is that there are number of protective playground surface options for the backyard playground that will meet the need for playground safety. As you might expect, playground surface options range in cost from affordable to expensive, and each option has its own list advantages and disadvantages. Weighing the positive and negative qualities of each type of playground surface material, as presented in this article, should allow you to choose the most appropriate playground surface for your backyard playground.

Critical Height of Playground Equipment

The first and most vital piece of information to know when considering different options for your protective playground surface is critical height. Critical height refers to the "maximum fall height from which a life-threatening head injury would not be expected to occur." The critical height of your playground equipment equals the height (in feet) of the uppermost portion of your backyard playground equipment that is accessible to children. The protective playground surface you choose for your backyard playground should be installed with a depth that is appropriate for your equipment's critical height.

The following lists show the critical height (in feet) for each of the loose-fill surface materials described in this article "when tested in an uncompressed state at depths of 6, 9, and 12 inches. The lists also show the critical height when a 9 inch depth of each material was tested in a compressed state."

Wood Chips

Shredded Bark Mulch

Play Sand

Pea Gravel

Recycled Rubber Mulch*

* It is recommended that you request test data from your chosen supplier of recycled rubber mulch that shows the critical heights of the material when it was tested in accordance with ASTM F1292.

According to the lists above, if the critical height of your backyard playground equipment is 8 feet, then the appropriate choices for surfacing would be 9 inches of compressed or uncompressed wood chips, 9 inches of uncompressed shredded bark mulch, 12 inches of uncompressed play sand, 12 inches of uncompressed pea gravel, or 6 inches of uncompressed recycled rubber mulch. Understanding some of the advantages and disadvantages of loose-fill surface materials should assist you in narrowing the choices to meet your specific needs.

Alternatives to loose-fill surface materials are rubber playground tiles, rubber mats, and poured-in-place playground surfaces. These options are available from a number of manufacturers who may use a variety of shock-absorbing materials. The manufacturers should be able to provide you with test data that shows the critical height for the protective surfaces they offer.

Loose-Fill Playground Surface Options

In general, loose-fill playground surface materials like wood chips, shredded bark mulch, pea gravel, play sand, and recycled rubber mulch are the most common choices for backyard playgrounds because they are affordable and easy to obtain from a local garden center or home improvement warehouse. Recycled rubber mulch can also be found in a variety of colors and sizes through internet suppliers.

Common Characteristics of Loose-Fill Playground Surface Materials




Wood Chips and Shredded bark mulch



Pea Gravel



Play Sand



Recycled Rubber Mulch



Other Protective Playground Surface Options

Rubber Tiles, Rubber Mats, and Poured-in-Place Surfaces

Rubber tiles, rubber mats, and poured-in-place surfaces are initially more expensive surface options than loose-fill materials, but they usually require very little maintenance over time. To determine whether one of these options would be more cost effective than a loose-fill material, consider how many children might potentially use your backyard playground equipment and for how many years. Larger families, for example, may prefer to pay more on the front end for a surface that will be easier and much less expensive to maintain over many years of active use.




No protective playground surface of any type or depth can prevent all injuries. Nonetheless, installing a protective playground surface as the foundation for your backyard playground equipment is essential for improving playground safety. The most appropriate playground surface for your needs is up to you, but whatever choice you make will be a significant step toward protecting the children who use your playground equipment from serious injuries due to falls to the surface.


  1. CPSC Document #323. "Home Playground Safety Tips."
  2. CPSC Document #324 "Outdoor Home Playground Safety Handbook." 2005.
  3. CPSC Document #1005. "Playground Surfacing Materials."
  4. CPSC Report. "Home Playground Equipment-Related Deaths and Injuries." July 2001.
  5. CPSC Report. "Special Study: Injuries and Deaths Associated with Children's Playground Equipment." April 2001.

Trey Collier is owner of, where North America shops for quality Wood Swing Set Kits & Plans. Our products meet or exceed CPSC guidelines. We take your children's safety seriously.

More Health and Safety Articles

Playing It Safe: Part 1 - Planning and Constructing a Safe Backyard Playground
A backyard playground is a great way to keep the kids busy, but it's also an easy place for them to get hurt. With proper planning and construction, you can cut down the odds of serious injury.

Do your children know how to be safe?
It's very important to talk to your children about safety, especially in situations where they might encounter people they don't know.

Copyright © 2003-2021 Stephanie Foster unless otherwise indicated


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