Feature Article - May 2020
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Understand Your Options on Playground Safety Surfacing

By Emily Tipping

If you're old enough, you can likely remember a lot of playgrounds that wouldn't pass the safety test today. Since the Consumer Product Safety Commission first introduced standards to govern playground safety in 1981, playground equipment and the surfaces we install beneath it have evolved to provide ever greater protection for children to engage in the kinds of exploration, risk-taking and active play that playgrounds encourage.

Many of us can remember play equipment installed above asphalt (like the playground at my elementary school) or grass (like that at my local park)—both considered big no-no's nowadays.

The fact is, the majority of injuries that occur on the playgrounds—more than 70%—involve falls, and most of those fall injuries occur when children fall onto unsafe surfaces. Providing adequate surfacing, and maintaining it over time to ensure it is continuing to provide the protection you expect, is crucial to prevent unnecessary injuries.

Know What's What

The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls suggests four steps to ensure kids are protected from falls by the surfacing you provide:

1. CHOOSE THE RIGHT MATERIALS. The wrong materials are many of those we remember from our own youth: asphalt, cement, dirt or concrete. Appropriate materials include both loose-fill materials like engineered wood fiber or rubber mulch, as well as unitary surfaces like rubber tiles or poured-in-place surfacing.

2. UNDERSTAND HOW EQUIPMENT HEIGHT AFFECTS SAFETY: According to the NPPS website, equipment that's higher than 5 feet more than doubles the probability of injury. But that doesn't mean you can't install soaring slides and towers. Just be sure to work with established playground manufacturers who understand how to engineer safety into such equipment. Also, understand that how tall the equipment is may have an impact on the surfacing you choose. Discuss your surfacing choice with your playground manufacturer to be sure you're on the right track.

3. MAINTAIN THE RIGHT DEPTH FOR LOOSE FILL: There is no hard and fast rule here, as different types of loose-fill materials will require different depths, and the height of the equipment will have an impact as well. The CPSC Handbook for Public Playground Safety can provide some guidance based on material and fall height. Talk with the provider of your surfacing as well, to be sure you understand its requirements.


Before you get started on making your surfacing selection, you should understand your options. While budget will largely drive your decision, your choice of surfacing type should take into account a number of factors that can have an impact on the safety of that surface over time, including your maintenance capabilities and the impact of local weather patterns. Other factors to consider while making your decision include accessibility requirements and aesthetics.

Broadly speaking, playground safety surfacing is divided into two groups: loose-fill and unitary surfacing.

Loose-fill material includes such options as rubber mulch, engineered wood fiber (EWF), playground sand, pea gravel and other bulk materials. These types of materials cost less up front, but require more regular maintenance in order to ensure the surface continues to adhere to safety and ADA guidelines.

Unitary surfaces include poured-in-place rubber (PIP), bond-in-place rubber, interlocking resilient tiles and synthetic turf with a protective pad installed beneath. Unitary surfacing is well known to cost more up front, but over the long term, its low maintenance costs and durability extend that budget. Other benefits of unitary surfacing include its accessibility, as well as the broad range of aesthetic choices that can be made when you have the ability to add shapes and designs while choosing from a rainbow of colors.

Loose-Fill Surfacing

Loose-fill surfacing is probably the most common choice for playground safety surfacing, and with good reason. "Loose-fill safety surfaces such as engineered wood fiber continue to be the most cost-effective, all-natural and most readily available surfacing, while also maintaining some of the best fall protection available," said Scott Merchlinski, CPSI, sales and marketing manager for a Middletown, Pa.-based supplier of surfacing for playgrounds, trails and more.

What's more, he said, you don't need experts on hand to install loose-fill surfacing, and these types of surface "… can easily maintain their fall attenuation properties over a longer period of time by periodic topping off."

According to the NPPS website, loose fill is more likely to erode

or become displaced, which makes it important to stay on top of maintenance, maintaining the proper depth of the surfacing to ensure it continues to cushion falls and prevent injuries. The required depth will vary depending on the type of surfacing material used, as well as the fall height of the equipment.

The organization states that it has conducted field testing on wooden loose-fill surfacing, including engineered wood fiber, wood chips and wood mulch, as well as sand and pea gravel, and made the following determinations:

>> "Wood products are the most widely used type of loose-fill material, and require the most shallow depth of material to protect against injuries from a given fall height, including the best performance at fall heights above 9 feet." In addition, wood is less affected by erosion than sand and pea gravel.

>> "Sand was found to require the most surface depth to cushion falls, while pea gravel displayed the greatest tendency to disperse and yield inconsistent surface depths." In addition, performance decreased once falls were 9 feet or more.