Every year, over 200,000 children in the United States are rushed to the ER for playground-related injuries. A good number of these trips likely could have been prevented with proper surfacing in and around playgrounds. A good understanding of how to choose the safest playground mulch for your kids will not only protect them from the risk of injuries and life-threatening accidents, but it will also make play more enjoyable for them.
The best playground mulch is made of sand, rubber, or wood. It should be durable and reliable, and it should cover the ground with sufficient thickness to keep kids safe in case of falls. Consider the type of playground equipment and potential falls onto the material you choose.
Ultimately, the choice of a playground mulch boils down to your personal preferences. But it can be pretty tough to pick with so many options on the market. So, how do you choose the best mulch for your kids considering their safety, the cost, and the functionality of the mulch? Let’s find out.
What’s the Difference Between Playground Mulch and Regular Mulch?
To start, you should first understand the difference between playground mulch and regular mulch. Not all mulches are good for every purpose and herein lies the difference.
Since regular mulch is used in yards and gardens, it’s often made with a very simple and natural process. The mulch is optimized to improve its aesthetic and functional qualities.
Mulch is normally used for beautifying gardens, controlling weed growth and water loss, and ultimately enhancing the growth of plants in any garden. Playground mulch, on the other hand, is optimized to perform best on playgrounds and walking paths.
While regular mulch is made from organic materials like yard waste and tree bark, playground mulch is usually made from natural wood from sawmills.
The process of creating regular mulch often involves subjecting the material to temperatures above 130 degrees for roughly three weeks to kill the weed seeds and harmful pests, and to free the mulch from pathogens.
Unlike regular mulch, playground mulch is made from clean wood that can come from any sawmill. It’s less decorative and more functional since the goal is to just lay it down for your kids to play on.
Both regular and playground mulches can be used to control weeds, but when it comes to the release of organic content in the soil, regular mulch is the clear winner.
In summary, regular mulch is best known for its organic functionalities, while playground mulch is best known for its clean and sophisticated usability.
Which Type of Mulch Is Best for a Playground?
It’s time to sift through our many options to select the best mulch for your child’s playground. But before we dive in, remember: The top priority is your child’s safety.
So, we’re essentially looking to select a playground mulch that reduces the odds of injuries when your child falls or other minor accidents happen.
Some thick, soft natural grass might be the first option that pops to your mind, but would it make a good mulch for your child’s playground? Not really.
While natural grass can be soft and pleasant to play on, the grass and soil will begin to compact after a few months of being subject to the impact of children playing.
- Grows easily
- Low upkeep required
- Retains water
- Slippery when wet
So, which mulch works better?
Experts generally recommend three types of mulches for playgrounds. These include sand, rubber, and wood.
Why do they work? Because they provide a soft, springy layer that cushions falls, absorbs shock, and lasts over time.
Rubber mulches are one of the most popular options in the playground mulches market and this is for a very good reason. Rubber mulches (on Amazon) prove to be effective shock-absorbers (a 6-inch rubber mulch layer can protect a kid from a 16-foot fall).
They also drain water almost immediately and last a lot longer than wood (since rubber doesn’t decay). Rubber mulches are a favorite on mini-golf courses and running tracks.
- Multiple color options
- Smells on hot days
- May hold contaminants
Rubber tiles (on Amazon) are a more sophisticated variation of regular rubber mulches. They come in different thicknesses so you get to pick whichever is most suitable for each section of your child’s playground. They are also very easy to fix and require little to no maintenance at all.
- Anti-slip feature makes them safe and great for all seasons
- Low upkeep required
- Easy to use
- Can be expensive
Although natural grass may not work, synthetic turf and artificial grass (on Amazon) do a lot better. Since they’re synthetic, they’re relatively low maintenance — they don’t require any watering, weeding, or cutting.
Yes, they cost a bit more than some of the other options, but they’re ideal when it comes to setting up a sports playground for your little ones.
- Anti-slip covering
- Low maintenance
- Cushioning effect
- Can get really hot on sunny days
Engineered Wood Fiber
Engineered wood fiber is a bit pricier than the other options on our list, but it provides a very aesthetic look to your child’s playground. The best part is that engineered wood fiber strikes a delicate balance between appeal and functionality.
As the name implies, engineered wood chips have been precisely selected (engineered) based on the type and size of wood. The chips are not a mixture of twigs and barks; rather, they’re made of virgin wood fiber that proves to be durable and efficient.
However, they sometimes contain dyes and shattered glass pieces that may be very harmful to your kids.
- Visually appealing
- May contain dyes and shattered glass pieces
Pine bark mulch (on Amazon) comes from pine bark shredding from pine trees. It comes in variants of barks from firs and spruces and, like the engineered wood fiber, it’s also visually appealing and offers various sizes and types.
Finely shredded pieces are known as pine nuggets. These nuggets don’t decompose easily, making them a more durable option on the playground. They’re also efficient in stopping the spread of soil-borne diseases to the plants on the playground.
- Visually appealing
- Low upkeep required
- Comes in different shapes and sizes
- Easily washed away by rain and wind
Play sand remains one of the most affordable options you can explore when it comes to selecting a nice playground mulch for your kids. Sand doesn’t retain water and absorb impacts well.
However, it may lead to occasional knee scrapes, which may not be very good for your kid.
Also, sand can compact very easily so you may have to refill from time to time. And that’s not to mention the fact that you may have to clean the house more often since the sand will most likely travel with the kids into your house after play is over. Not our first choice on all grounds.
- Easily accessible
- Needs frequent replenishing
- Causes knee scrapes
- Blows away easily
How Thick Should Playground Mulch Be?
Your playground mulch will serve as a buffer between your kids and the cold, hard ground so you really need to put in the effort to ensure it protects your kids when they fall and tumble. However, you don’t want to overdo it by making the mulch too thick — that has its downsides as well.
It’s usually best to keep your mulch between 8 and 12 inches thick. The range accounts for the variations in mulch choices. Factors like mulch type and height of the playing equipment should be factored into consideration when deciding how much mulch to use.
For example, play equipment like a swing that’s higher up will require more mulch than equipment on the ground.
If you’re unsure about what specific thickness to adopt, you can have your playground mulch suppliers come in to access the impact attenuation for your playground and determine the critical fall height rating.
This is a measure of the fall height below which a knock to the head is not likely to happen. Regardless of the mulch, you want your child’s playground to be able to cushion the effect of a fall from the highest equipment on the playground.
Experienced suppliers will be able to easily determine the volume of mulch the playground needs based on the length and width of the playground.
From experience, we know that engineered wood fiber performs best when it comes to dampening the effects of a huge fall. A wood fiber layer of 12 inches will sufficiently cushion a fall from 12 feet.
How Do You Maintain Playground Mulch?
Selecting the best mulch playground for your kids is only one piece of the puzzle. You also need to think about how to maintain the playground mulch.
Truth is, parenting is demanding like that, but if we create a safe playing environment for our kids, we can afford to take our eyes off them for a few hours and do more of the things we love.
To ensure this, we have prepared a list of some of the best tips when it comes to maintaining the mulch on your children’s playground.
Start With the Right Amount
Before you even think about maintaining a healthy playground for your kids, you need a solid base. So, make sure to call in the experts to determine just the right amount of mulch you need, and make sure it’s neatly done. Only after this can you move on to maintaining the perfect playground for your kids.
At this point, there are two things to watch out for. The type of mulch and the height and thickness required to keep your kids safe.
Rake the Playground Often
As your kids play on the playground, the mulch will compress over time and the thickness will reduce. As the thickness drops, so too does the critical fall height rating.
To be safe, it’s important to pay careful attention to the high-traffic areas on the playground. The mulch at slides and swings is more likely to compress faster than the mulch at less busy points on the playground.
The best way to restore this balance is to bring out the rakes and even out the displaced and compressed mulch. Yes, it may take some time, but it’s most definitely going to be worth it.
Check the Mulch Depth Regularly
Sometimes, you need to bring out the tape measure and check if the mulch depth is still acceptable. Another very good way to do it is to mark some levels on support posts or on one or two structures on the playground.
This way, you can visually see when the playground mulch has gone down by a few delicate inches.
You can’t be too careful when it comes to your kids. Don’t allow the mulch to go below the required safety depth to prevent injuries. We can’t emphasize this enough.
Till the Mulch to Keep It Soft
Tilling means softer landing spots for your kids, and softer landing spots mean a lower likelihood of injuries from high equipment. If you could do that so easily just by raking the playground, why not?
Remove Trash and Debris
Your children may not fall from high places, but trash and debris on the playground mulch can also do damage. Inspect the playground from time to time, and carefully remove materials that can cause harm to the kids.
This could be anything from loose rocks to sharp branches and exposed tree roots.
Outline the Perimeter
Keep the mulch from overflowing the play area by installing a border around the playground. A suitable landscape edging material like rocks will go a very long way.
Not only does it define the edges of the playground, it also helps to keep the mulch in place and reduce the spread of mulch from one zone to the other.
An outline also proves to be helpful in dramatic weather conditions like when it’s raining or windy, since the mulch will conveniently remain in its place.
We advise that you choose playground mulch options that are safe for all seasons. You don’t want your kids slipping on mulches that retain water.
You also don’t want their skin burning because the ground is so hot or to have them get sick because the mulch contains contamination or harmful chemicals.
Yes, choosing a playground mulch is pretty serious business. However, once you get it right, it’ll be smooth sailing for years to come.
The best part is that you can also begin to spread the knowledge to help other parents make better decisions and reduce the unfortunate number of kids that make it to the ER every year. Big win for you, big win for your kids — and their friends.
Verdict: What’s the Safest Playground Mulch?
Sand, wood, and rubber are very good options when it comes to selecting a safe playground mulch for your kids. However, this doesn’t mean that any of them is perfect.
Sand could give your kids knee scrapes occasionally. Natural grass may lose its depth with time and gets slippery easily; synthetic turf may get very hot on sunny days; and the engineered wood fiber may contain dye and shards of glass. However, these playground mulches stand out from the rest.
It is important that you also take note of the positives. Pick out what you like about each playground mulch and see how you can avoid the negatives that could potentially come with it. Ultimately, the choice of a playground mulch should depend on your personal preference.
Your personal preference, in turn, should depend on what you’ve weighed out to be most important for your kids’ safety.
So, choose wisely, and after you choose, be sure to follow all the necessary maintenance tips to ensure that your child’s playground mulch remains at healthy, protective levels at all times.