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Guide To Backyard Playground Surfacing

Tumbles and falls are part of the outdoor play experience. It's part of the fun. As parents and care givers we want our children to have fun outdoors, be challenged, but also be safe. That's why installing safety surfacing under and around your backyard playground is so important. Safety surfacing provides children with a more forgiving surface to play on and reduces the likelihood of serious injury in the event of a major fall. Because falls are the most common cause of playground-related injuries, installing safety surfacing is one of the most important factors in preventing a playground-related injury.

Types of Playground Safety Surfacing

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has created a playground safety handbook that is widely used as a safety resource in the playground industry. Below is a chart of common loose fill surfacing options outlined by the CPSC as well as a few key term definitions.

Depth (inches) Loose Fill Material Fall Height (ft)
6" * Shredded / Recycled Rubber 10'
9" Sand 4'
9" Pea Gravel 5'
9" Wood Mulch (non-CCA) 7'
Wood Chips 10'
*Shredded/recycled rubber loose-fill surfacing does not compress in the same manner as other loose-fill materials. However, care should be taken to maintain a constant depth as displacement may still occur.

Definitions safety surfacing related terms
Loose Fill Material: A material that consists of loose particles that are not bonded together such sand, gravel, engineered wood fibers, or shredded rubber.

Critical Height: A height attributed to a surfacing material through lab testing. This height can be considered as an approximation of the fall height below which a life-threatening head injury would not be expected to occur.

Fall Height: The vertical distance between the highest designated play surface on a piece of equipment and the protective surfacing beneath it. For swings the fall height is measured from the pivot point at the top of the swings to the surfacing below.

Additional Information

  • Loose fill surfacing material will often get displaced over time, especially in high traffic areas such as under slides and swings. Swing mats help to solve this issue by holding the surfacing in place. Take care to ensure that the proper depth is maintained throughout the playground.
  • Loose fill material compresses at least 25% of time due to weathering and use. This should be considered when calculating the initial fill depth. For example, if a playground needs 9” of wood mulch you'll want to fill it at an initial depth of 12” which will then compress back down to 9”. The chart above shows compressed depths.
  • Never install play equipment directly on concrete or asphalt as the risk of injury is very high due to the hardness of the surface.

Playground Borders

Once you've decided what type of playground surfacing to use, the next thing to consider is how to contain it. There are a couple different types of playground borders designed specifically to go around the perimeter of the play area and contain loose-fill surfacing material.

  • Plastic Timber Borders are the most common type of playground border. They are widely used for both commercial and residential uses. They are also a very cost-effective option.
  • Rubber Curb Borders are typically bendable making them an excellent option for creating fluid curves around your play area.

Safety Zones

A safety zone is the area under and around the playground equipment where children are expected to fall. The safety zone gives children an area free of obstructions and other structures to run around and safely play on the play equipment. It's typically recommended that the safety zone extend 6' on each side of the play structure; however, there are a few additional recommendations for swings made by the CPSC. Check out their Outdoor Home Playground Handbook for a complete guide on safety zone recommendations.

Playground Layout

Depending on your yard and your swing set, there are a few different ways to consider laying out your playground.

Rectangular Layout
A rectangular layout is the most simple option and is very common among residential and commercial playgrounds. It is based on the rectangular dimensions of the safety zone as shown by the example below.

Rectangular Layout

Irregular Layout
An irregular layout relies on the actual curves of the safety zone rather than the box dimensions as you can see in the example below. This makes it a more compact design which is great for conserving space or for keeping surfacing material to a minimum by trimming off the corners and edges.

Irregular Layout