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Playground safety protective surfaces

By: Libby Reed 
Risk Solutions Specialist 

Playgrounds present various hazards to child care centers, and many injuries to children occur while on a playground. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an estimated 200,000 playground injuries are treated in emergency rooms annually (2010). Falls are some of the most common injuries, ranging from minor bruises to broken limbs to fatal head injuries. 

Protective surfacing under and around equipment is critical to reducing the severity of falls and life-threatening head trauma. Therefore, surfacing material that has been tested and meets guidelines set by the CPSC and regulatory standards for shock absorption is an essential component of playground safety. Protective surfacing standards do not apply to equipment that requires a child to be standing or sitting at ground level (e.g., sandboxes, activity walls at ground level, playhouses, and any other equipment that children use when their feet remain in contact with the ground surface) (CPSC, 2010). 

Types of surfacing material 

Surfacing under and around playground equipment should have shock-absorption properties that provide more protection than other hard surfaces. The two primary categories of these materials are unitary and loose-fill. 

  • Unitary surfacing material examples – Rubber mats and tiles and energy-absorbing materials held in place by a binder 
  • Loose-fill surfacing material examples – Pea gravel, sand, shredded/recycled rubber mulch, wood mulch (not chromated copper arsenate (CCA)-treated), and wood chips 

Regardless of material type, surfacing should be tested and compliant with ASTM F1292 Standard Specification for Impact Attenuation of Surface Systems Under and Around Playground Equipment. Testing methods provide a critical height rating, which indicates an approximation of the fall height below which a life-threatening head injury would not be expected to occur (CPSC, 2010). Therefore, the critical height rating of the selected surfacing for your playground should meet or exceed the fall height of the highest equipment piece. 

Surfaces that do not provide adequate shock absorption under and around playground equipment include asphalt, concrete, dirt, grass, carpet not tested to ASTM F1292, CCA-treated wood mulch, etc. 

Surfacing installation, depth, and maintenance

Once a surface type is selected, the material should be installed to comply with CPSC guidelines and other applicable regulations. For best practices, consider obtaining the services of a certified playground inspector to ensure that your playground, including design, installation, equipment, and surfaces, is safe for children. 

The following table includes the minimum depths for loose-fill surfacing materials as outlined by the CPSC (2010): 




Minimum depth in inches


Protected fall height in feet


Shredded/recycled rubber












Pea gravel






Non-CCA wood mulch






Wood chips





It is important to remember that loose-fill materials compress over time, but shredded/recycled rubber requires less depth than other materials in the table because it does not compress in the same way. Therefore, regardless of the material used, the depth of the protective surfacing should be checked often, and additional material should be added as necessary to maintain the minimum depth. Proper maintenance is necessary for adequate shock absorption and helping to protect children from devastating falls. 

For more information on playground safety, refer to the CPSC’s Public Playground Safety Handbook


U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. (2010). Public playground safety handbook.