Playground Surface Safety

Protective playground surfacing is often the most overlooked part of home playground safety. Only about 9% of home playgrounds have a safety surface under their playsets. Most commonly, backyard playsets sit on top of grass and dirt, but neither provides adequate protection against injury due to falls.

Luckily, there are a variety of protective playground surface choices for home playgrounds that meet the need for playground safety. The cost of the surfaces range from affordable to expensive, and each choice has its own list of advantages and disadvantages. Comparing each type of surface material, you should be able to choose the playground surface that meets your home playground’s needs.

The most important piece of information to know when considering the available choices for you protective playground surface is fall height, which is the height of the uppermost part of the playset that is accessible to children. The type of playground surface you select for your home playground should be installed with a depth that is adequate for your playsets fall height.

The following is a minimum compressed loose-fill surfacing depths:

Rubber Mulch* 3” depth 7’ Fall Height
Sand 9” depth 4’ Fall Height
Pea Gravel 9” depth 5’ Fall Height
Wood Mulch 9” depth 7’ Fall Height
Wood Chips 9” depth 10’ Fall Height

There are several choices available for playground surfaces; fine sand, coarse sand, fine gravel, medium gravel, wood chips, and rubber mulch (shredded tires). In backyards, the most common materials used in our area are wood chips and rubber mulch, which are loose-fill playground surfaces.

*Rubber mulch does not compress in the same manner as the other loose-fill materials.

Let’s take a closer look at the 2 most common surfaces, the wood chips and rubber mulch.

Common Features of Loose-Fill Protective Playground Surface


  • The area requires a barrier to prevent the surface material from displacing due to active play or weather conditions.
  • Loose-fill surfaces should never be placed on top of hard surface, such as concrete.
  • It is important to have adequate drainage beneath the protective surface.


  • The loose-fill playground surface cost is affordable and easy to find.


  • Loose-fill materials can compress over time, reducing their protective abilities.
  • Rubbish such as nails, glass, and other objects can be concealed underneath the material.
  • Active play or windy conditions can displace the material, which can compromise the recommended depth.
  • It is recommended that regular upkeep on maintaining the proper depth and removing rubbish, by raking, sifting, grading and leveling area.
  • Replacement of the materials is necessary over time. The rubber mulch does not have to be replaced as often.

Wood Chips


  • Wood chips are less abrasive than some of the other surfaces such as play sand.
  • Animals are less likely to soil in wood chips.
  • The wood chips are visually pleasing.


  • Insects are attracted to wood chips.
  • Weather conditions decrease the protective ability.
  • Wood chips can develop fungus and mold when wet.
  • Over time will become crushed, compacted, and can decompose.

Rubber Mulch


  • Rubber mulch does not need to be replaced yearly.
  • Cleaner than the other loose-fill materials.
  • Does not cause scrapes, scratches, or splinters from falls.
  • Animals & insects aren’t attracted to rubber mulch.
  • Mold and fungus growth are not an issue.


  • Colors on the rubber mulch will fade over time.
  • Rubber mulch usually needs to be raked routinely to maintain adequate depths in high traffic areas.

No protective playground surface can prevent all injuries, regardless of the type or depth. Installing a surface for your playground equipment is vital for improving safety. The best surface for your area is up to you, but whatever option you choose will be a significant step toward protecting children from serious injuries due to fall to the surface.
Looking for surfacing options? Contact Recreation Unlimited to hear more about different options.

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