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Playground Surface Testing Guide

Playground Surface Testing Guide

Whether they’re in the backyard or a public park, playgrounds are where childhoods are made. Children spend hours climbing ladders, sliding down slides, swinging across monkey bars and, perhaps most importantly of all, running and playing with friends. Playgrounds are where children can burn off steam after a long day of school. They are where they can practice social skills like sharing and compassion. And, they are where children can put their imaginations to work, creating games and stories of all kinds.

Being on the playground is an important part of a child’s development, and it has been that way for a long time. In fact, the first playgrounds in the United States were developed because industrialization and the migration into cities left children and their families living in cramped quarters and more socially isolated. Recognizing that something needed to be done to keep kids out of trouble, the concept of the playground was born.

Of course, the early playgrounds weren’t anything like the free-form apparatus we think of when we hear the word today. Over the years, playgrounds have developed into something completely different than they were in those early days, and communities have learned a lot about what children need and how to keep them safe.

With the rise of the playground, we’ve also seen a rise in the dangers associated with many playground activities. Every year, emergency rooms treat more than 200,000 children for injuries sustained on the playground. Of those children who are injured, 20,000 are diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury as the result of their playground-related injury.

Playground Safety Requirements

Surface materials to avoid: wood boards, concrete, and grassPlaygrounds can be fun places, but also dangerous ones. Kids are kids, after all. They will fall. So, how can you ensure their accidents don’t result in a visit to the emergency room? Safety should be the primary consideration from design to construction of any play space. Why? Because the way a playground is designed and built will determine how it’s used and what safeguards are in place to protect children as they play. In fact, many states have passed laws designed to enforce safety standards on playgrounds. Unfortunately, these standards are not consistent across states, and not all states have legislation protecting these play spaces.

So, where do you start?

When you’re designing and building a playground, it’s important to determine whether your state has passed legislation addressing playground safety. If so, then use this legislation as a guide throughout your design process. If you’re building a playground in a state that does not have legislation regarding playground safety — or you want to go above and beyond these guidelines — then there are several other governing bodies who have set forth guidelines for playground safety that you can use, such as these four.


1. ASTM International

Following ASTM International guidelines is a great way to protect any child who will be playing on that playground. ASTM has set a number of voluntary playground safety standards, but their most notable are their standards and test methods regarding playground surfacing and safety testing. Known as F1292, F3313 and F3351, these standards sets forth a method for testing and evaluating surface materials and their ability to absorb impact. Over time, these standards have influenced how surface materials are made, which provides more protection for children when an accident does happen. More details on these will follow.

The way a playground is designed and built will determine how it's used and what safeguards are in place to protect children as they play

2. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)

The CPSC has published safety guides and alerts regarding playground equipment and surfacing. Their free information is helpful during all stages of building a playground, and they reference ASTM surfacing and equipment standards and should be followed intently. Among other recommendations, the CPSC encourages loose-fill surfaces that have ASTM standards such as engineered wood fiber which has a standard- F2075 , as well as paying careful attention to the drainage installed in and around the play area. The CPSC also echoes the guidelines set forth by ASTM in regards to testing surface materials prior to children using them.

3. Canadian Standards Association (CSA)

Although not law, in Canada or for those of us south of the border, the guidelines set forth by the CSA provide direction for the safe design and construction of playgrounds. Many localities in Canada have used them to develop their own legislation and community standards for playgrounds, lending a lot of credibility to the recommendations from this nonprofit.

4. Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA has established a number of guidelines for building and renovating playgrounds to be accessible to all children. If you’re constructing a public playground, it’s important to design a space that adheres to these guidelines so all children can enjoy the playground. Among their requirements, which are federal law, are a number of guidelines for playground surfacing, including:

  • Maintenance and inspection of surfaces
  • Installation of surfaces and design of spaces to allow for wheelchair access
  • Compliance with ASTM 1292 to make sure surfacing material adequately absorbs the impact sustained in a fall

ADA-compliant alternative Materials to AWF: Recbase synthetic grass and TuffMat Resilient Wear Mats

How do we guarantee we’re getting what we paid for   

When you’re designing a playground, following established guidelines for the surfacing is an important first step toward making sure the children who will be playing there are protected. Once you’ve considered these guidelines, then it’s time to choose a surface material. But how can you guarantee you’re getting a surface that meets all these requirements for the cost you are putting out? 

1) Start with requiring laboratory test results from the manufacturer that show the surface you want meets fall height requirements of the playground equipment the surface is going under. But here’s the catch; There are now 2 laboratory test results available. One is the old and famous impact test standard F1292. It is a Critical Fall Height (CFH) test method. That means that the laboratory is going to test that surface to the point at which it still meets HIC (Head Injury Criteria) and Gmax limits of 1,000 HIC and 200 G’s. In other words, they keep testing the surface until it goes passed the 1,000/200 mark. So for example, if you ask for a unitary surface like poured in place rubber or rubber tiles that meet F1292 at 8 feet the surface you could get can have a HIC reading of 995 and a Gmax reading of 196. Results that say the surface “meets requirements” but just barely so is that a really safe surface? What happens 2,3, maybe 5 years down the road as the rubber starts to harden and get less resilient. It may look great on the top surface, but in reality, it could very well be out of compliance.

So we really shouldn’t ask for a surface that just meets minimum requirements. We should be asking for surfacing that is well below the 1,000 / 200 limits, right?

Here’s an example; if you want to stop a wagon from going over a cliff a 1,000 feet down the path and you have a choice of either stopping at 700 feet or stopping at 995 feet, which would you choose keeping in mind those breaks on the wagon get worn out as you use them and as time goes on.

How close to the edge of danger is your surfacing?

So using that analogy, would you want your poured in place surface or rubber tile to pass the HIC limit of 1,000 at 700 or 995 knowing that as your surface gets used and ages, it will get harder and give you less safety as time goes on. Now here’s where a new standard for testing playground surfaces comes in. This new ASTM standard is F3351 – Standard Test Method for Playground Surface Impact Testing in Laboratory at Specified Test Height. This test method allows for laboratory testing at a drop height lower than the critical fall height (CFH) as determined in Specification F1292 utilizing the three temperature test method and device used in F1292. This allows you, the owner/operators to be in the driver seat and require your surface systems to perform better at initial installation with much lower HIC and Gmax test results than the critical fall height limit.  

Using this new ASTM standard test method, let’s go back to our previous example whereby the owner operator is asking for a unitary surface for their playground that has an 8 foot fall requirement, only this time, the owner operator can be more specific about what they desire in the actual test results. So they ask for a surfacing that achieves 700 HIC and 120 Gmax or lower using the ASTM F3351 test method. Now they have a surfacing that starts out with lower HIC/ Gmax results to allow for the surface to get less resilient over time and still be under the pass/fail limits of 1,000 HIC/ 200 G’s. 

2) Our second step to answer our initial question of how we can guarantee we’re getting a surface that meets the requirements and is worth the cost we are paying is to utilize the 3rd ASTM standard and that is ASTM F3313 – Standard Test Method for Determining Impact Attenuation of Playground Surfaces Within the Use Zone of Playground Equipment as Tested in the Field. This would be the final piece to the puzzle. Once you have required certain pass/fail criteria for your new safety surfacing, require that it is tested in thefield before the playground opens and then again periodically thereafter as the playground continues to be used and ages. Most warranties from surfacing manufacturers include a performance warranty for a certain period of time. Make sure to ask them and ask them if the warranty is for minimums or is the surfacing warranted not exceed a certain percentage of the pass/fail criteria. For example you may want to ask for a guarantee that the surface achieves a 700 HIC and 120 Gmax when first installed and then guaranteed not to exceed 800 HIC for ____ years. Again, its up to you the playground owner. Now that’s taking control of the safety of your playground!

How It All Works

Steps for testing: owner bids for a tile surface, supplier bids the project, and owner/operator requests testing

Playground Surface Impact TestingMan testing safety of playground equipment

When it comes to playground impact testing, Zeager adheres to the ASTM F1292, F3351 and F3313 standards for the testing of surface materials. What does this mean? It means we sell and install materials that have been put through a series of tests by their manufacturer long before we ever agreed to sell them.

If those standards aren’t enough, Zeager has its own surface testing equipment, so we can do field testing once the material has been put into place. This isn’t a requirement for purchase, but we find that it can offer peace of mind to a lot of our clients, especially if there’s any concern about how EWF or other surfacing materials will perform under certain conditions.

Let Zeager Make Your Playground Surface Safe

Choosing the playground surface for a new playspace might not be the most fun part of the job — but it is one of the most important. When you’re planning a new playground, whether it’s a public playspace or an at-home swing set, it’s essential to make sure the children playing there will be protected as they play.

We offer a wide variety of landscaping and recreational surfaces, our goal is to provide high-quality engineered wood fibers for all your outdoor needs.

Family-owned and operated since 1967, Zeager Bros.’ mission is to help you protect your children as they play. Offering a wide variety of landscaping and recreational surfaces, our goal is to provide high-quality engineered wood fibers for all your outdoor needs. Because we continue to be run by the Zeager family, we can provide the one-on-one service that’s so important when you’re selecting a safe and functional surface material.

If you’re in the market for a recreational surface, don’t look any further. Call Zeager Brothers at 800-346-8524 or contact us online today.