Which playground surface is the safest?

playground surface
playground surface

Which playground surface is the safest?

Thanks to improved safety standards (particularly the removal of unsafe playground equipment and a reduction in the height of structures) playgrounds today are safer and injury rates for the most catastrophic head injuries have significantly declined. Unfortunately, not all is going well. The bad news is that fractures – particularly to the shoulder, wrist, forearm and elbow – are up, with those aged five to nine years most affected.

While overcrowding, lack of adult supervision and more “boring” equipment that children misuse have been blamed, the biggest culprit remains playground design. But the surprise is that it’s not just about what children are falling from but what they’re falling onto. Children are susceptible to injury when they fall onto a hard surface.

Surface materials

Having a well-maintained appropriate playground surface can significantly lower the risk of injury when kids take a tumble. But how do you know which playground surface will be safe and which one may contribute to a broken bone or worse?

In order to be safe, the surface under all playground equipment should be soft. The variety of playground impact absorbing surface materials each have their strengths and weaknesses but here are two things they should all have in common:

  • Comply with the Australian standard.
  • Absorb the energy of a child’s fall over a long period of time and over a great distance (when a child sinks into the surface and doesn’t rebound).

The following list explains the pros and cons of different types of surface materials available.

Bark soft-fall (composted lignin mulch)


Low initial cost
Spreads easily
Easy to install
Readily available

Easily displaced
Needs weekly maintenance and a top-up at least four times a year
Impact absorption weakened if too shallow, wet, frozen or combined with dirt
May conceal hazardous objects (eg. broken glass, syringes)Not suitable for wheelchair access


  • Watch out for timber-based products with sharp edges or product so fine it can be inhaled
  • Must be installed to the suggested minimum depth of 40cm
Impact-absorbing sand
Low initial cost
Doesn’t deteriorate readily with usage
Easy to install
Readily available
Combines with dirt; may compact
May conceal hazardous objects (eg. broken glass, syringes)
May conceal animal faeces
Attractive to animals
Easily displaced
Not suitable for wheelchair access


  • Not all sand is good sand. Some sand types compact to concrete-like hardness. It must be impact-absorbing, suitable for playgrounds.
  • Be sure to install to the suggested minimum depth of 40cm.
Wet pour rubber (AKA soft-fall rubber)
Durable, low maintenance
Water-permeable surface
Environmentally friendly, as uses waste product
Suitable for wheelchair access 
Can be expensive to install
Can get very hot in summer
Bounce can compound injuries
Can be slippery when wet


  • A visual inspection cannot tell you a good rubberised surface from a poor one. Only certified testing can, so contact your school or council for information on their compliance testing if you are unsure.
Rubber tiles and pavers
Durable, low-maintenance
Water-permeable surface
Suitable for wheelchair access
Can be installed over concrete, asphalt or other hard surfaces 
Extremely expensive
Often needs a level site
Bounce can compound injuries
Can be slippery when wet


  • Curling tiles can be a trip hazard.
  • A visual inspection cannot tell you a good rubberised surface from a poor one. Only certified testing can, so contact your school or council for information on their compliance testing if you are unsure.
Bounce is bad

The big problem with rubber is it induces bounce. And when it comes to injury, bounce is bad: children can rebound several times on the injured part. Some companies overcome this problem with the insertion of polystyrene foam embedded in the rubber product. If you’re installing a playground they’re worth seeking out. But unfortunately, as a parent, there is no way of visually recognising a rubber playground surface with this protective property.


It’s no use having a perfectly installed playground surface, particularly of the high-maintenance bark mulch or sand variety, if it’s not regularly maintained. For sand or bark soft-fall, 30cm is the minimum safe surface depth and ideally, at least 40cm should be maintained at all times. In popular playground spaces, this means bark particularly should be raked on a weekly basis and topped up at least quarterly.

Protect your kids

If you’re putting a playground in at home:

  • Take care getting the foundation right.
  • Select a material you can and will maintain.
  • Ensure you lay the material deep enough.

If you’re taking your child to the local playground:

  • Be aware of how deep soft-fall materials need to be for safety.
  • If the surface is rubber, be prepared to call your school or council and ask some hard questions about safety testing.


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Recommended depths

Typically you need a finishing layer of screened soil of 100mm when working with an uneven surface. 100mm of soil will allow to even out any hollows and give enough depth to create a flat surface

A general rule for compost is to allow for the depth of the current root structure of your plants with an additional 30-50% to mix in with the base. If you’re planting into holes or filling up a vege garden  you will need to accommodate for this prior to filling up

We recommend 100mm (10cm) deep for new bark gardens and planting into bare areas. For existing gardens with some cover, we recommend 75mm-100mm (7.5cm-10cm)

Note: Barked areas for playground impact protection need to meet NZS5828:2015 standards and is calculated on the fall areas and the height of the playground. Please contact us to discuss your barked playground areas

For paths and driveways which are often exposed to car and foot traffic, we recommend 100mm-125mm (10cm-12.5cm) on newly prepared areas due to settling of product.

This excludes preparation, compaction or drainage gravel underneath. For existing areas 75mm thickness is recommended for areas needing a small top-up.