Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

Best Wood Mulch For a Playground: Wood Chips Vs Rubber

By: Zac Friedman

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When building a backyard playground, it’s a good idea to put mulch under it to create a safe area for kids to play. There are a number of different playground mulch options including wood chips, bark, rubber mulch, and pea gravel. The best playground mulch depends on your budget, the location of the playground equipment, and the type of equipment.

Generally, the best playground mulch is playground wood chips (also known as engineered wood fiber or EWF). Playground wood mulch can be made from a few different materials including pine and cedar. Rubber mulch can also work well for playgrounds. You should not use regular wood mulch for playgrounds because it can have sharp edges and can cause splinters. 

This guide outlines the different types of playground surface material options and lists some pros and cons of each. We’ll cover safety, cost, longevity, ease of installation, environmental friendliness, and more. 

The Best Playground Mulch

What is Playground Mulch?

Playground mulch is a layer of mulch that is spread over playground surfaces to make a safe surface for kids to play on. It can be placed under a swing set, monkey bars, or jungle gym.

Playground mulch provides cushioning for children if they fall. It is designed not to cause scrapes or splinters. It is also designed to be clean, hypoallergenic, and free of potentially harmful compounds. Playground mulch can also be used for walking paths. 

Playground equipment with wood chips

The Best Wood Mulch for Playgrounds is Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF)

Engineered wood fiber is a type of wood mulch that is specially designed for playgrounds. It is sometimes called playground mulch or EWF.

EWF is designed to provide fall protection. It provides cushioning if a child were to fall on it. It is also cut and finished so there are no sharp edges that could cause cuts or splinters.

EWF is also made from clean wood that does not contain any harmful contaminants. This is sometimes advertised as ‘virgin wood’. It does not contain any waste wood or recycled wood. It’s hypoallergenic. It also contains no bark. It is made from the pulpy interior wood fibers.

To provide sufficient cushioning, EWF should be applied 8-12 inches deep. The ideal coverage depth depends on the height of the play equipment and potential fall height. Higher equipment requires thicker mulch to provide sufficient cushioning in case a kid were to fall. 

One nice thing about EWF is that it is an attractive material. It has a nice natural look. It is also an organic material. This makes it very environmentally friendly. It doesn’t introduce any contaminants into the environment. It’s just wood.

Engineered wood fiber (EWF)

Engineered wood fiber is also certified playground mulch. It meets ASTM standards (American Society for Testing and Materials) or IPEMA standards (international play equipment manufacturers association). This means it can legally be used commercially in playgrounds in public parks and school playgrounds. It meets all of the playground safety standards. It offers great impact absorption. It’s also clean, it’s free of toxins, and it lasts a long time. 

There are a couple of drawbacks to engineered wood fiber. It degrades over time because it is an organic material. Every 2-3 years, you’ll have to add a fresh layer. EWF is also more expensive than wood mulch that you would apply to your garden because it requires more processing. On average, EWF costs around $35-$55 per square yard. Each cubic yard of playground mulch covers around  27′ x 27′ of area. Another potential drawback is that wood chips can be uneven. They can be a tripping hazard. It can also be difficult for people with disabilities and people in wheelchairs to pass over. Weed growth can be an issue in some cases.

Rubber Mulch for Playgrounds

Rubber mulch is one of the most popular playground surfacing options. It is usually made from shredded tires and other recycled rubber materials. All contaminants are removed and the pieces of shredded rubber are dyed. 

Rubber mulch is one of the safest materials for playgrounds. It provides plenty of cushioning when kids fall on it. It also does not cause scrapes or splinters. In addition, it is durable and long lasting. It can last up to 20 years. Rubber mulch also comes in a wide range of colors including green, blue, black, and red. It is often used on commercial playgrounds. 

A playground with rubber mulch
A playground with a rubber surface

There are quite a few drawbacks of rubber mulch. Most importantly, it is not environmentally friendly. Rubber breaks down over time into tiny particles. These can be considered microplastics. They can make their way into the waterways and harm marine life. 

On hot days, rubber can also leach harmful chemicals into the air and into the environment including lead, cadmium, and zinc. These chemicals come from the hydrocarbons that are used to make the rubber. They can be harmful if people breathe them. Rubber mulch can also have a bad odor. These contaminants can also harm plant life. 

In addition, rubber mulch is more expensive than wood mulches. Because it lasts longer, it can make up for the cost over time. Rubber mulch also isn’t as attractive as wood mulches. From a distance, it can look like wood. Up close it is obviously a synthetic material. Many people don’t like the unnatural look. Rubber mulch can also be a fire hazard. If it catches fire, it’s hard to put out. It’s best not to use it near your home if you live in an area that is susceptible to wildfires. 

Unitary Surface

Rubber mulch usually comes in chips. It is also available in unitary surfaces such as large sheets that roll out, interlocking tiles, or pour-in-place material. Synthetic turf can also be used. 

These unitary surfaces stay in place well. They don’t shift around like rubber chips or wood mulch. They don’t blow away in the wind or wash away in a flood. You never need to top them up. They also last a long time. In addition, the tripping risk is lower. It’s harder to trip because the surface is completely flat. They allow for wheelchair access.

These surfaces are more expensive than other types of mulch. Installation is more difficult and time consuming. They also have the same drawbacks as rubber chips. They are not environmentally friendly. 

Bark Mulch

Pine bark mulch

Some types of bark mulch can also work well for playgrounds. One good option is bark dust. This is pine bark that has been ground into fine particles. It is soft and provides plenty of cushioning. Because it is ground, there are no sharp edges. Splinters are still possible but unlikely. 

Larger bark nuggets are also an option. Pine bark mulch is a popular choice. They can be processed so there are no sharp edges. 

Bark mulch has a nice natural look. It is available in a range of colors including dark brown, black, and red. The color doesn’t fade over time. Bark is also long lasting. It decomposes slower than wood chips. You’ll only have to add to it every 3-4 years in most cases. It’s also a natural product. It doesn’t add any contaminants to your yard. 

There are a few drawbacks to consider. Bark is a lightweight material. Bark nuggets can float away if the play area floods. It doesn’t provide as much cushioning as EWF or rubber.

Pea Gravel

Pea grave is another popular playground surface. It is made from small stones that are smoothed from weathering. They are the size of peas. They come in different colors including black, white, and brown. 

Pea gravel can offer some decent cushioning as long as it has a minimum depth of 9 inches. It isn’t as soft as wood chips or rubber but it does help break falls. It also won’t cause slivers. 

In addition, it’s affordable, long lasting, and easy to install.  It’s also a natural material. It doesn’t harm the environment. It’s just rocks. 

There are some drawbacks to consider. Pea gravel shifts when you walk on it. It can also be difficult to clean. In some jurisdictions, it is not legal to use for public playgrounds for safety reasons. It can also be more expensive than wood mulch. 

For more info, check out my guide to mulch vs rock for landscaping.

Can You Use Regular Wood Chips on a Playground?

Cedar mulch
Cedar mulch

Generally, you shouldn’t use regular wood chips that are designed to be used for landscaping on a playground. It’s not safe for playground use. There are a few reasons for this. 

Most importantly, wood mulch can contain sharp shards of wood and bark. If a child were to fall on it, the wood could cause scrapes, splinters, and cuts. It also doesn’t provide sufficient cushioning. You would need a deeper layer to provide enough protection. Kids may be more likely to suffer injuries such as fractures or concussions if the mulch doesn’t provide enough cushioning. 

In addition, regular wood chips can contain various contaminants that could be potentially harmful. There could be debris or foreign materials. Sometimes waste wood or recycled wood is used to make mulch. The quality control isn’t as good. Wood mulch can also contain substances that kids could be allergic to, such as dust or various fungi. Some mulch is also treated with chemicals or dyes that kids could cause a reaction.

For these reasons, it’s best not to use regular wood mulch or bark mulch on a playground. It’s just not as safe. Having said all of this, you can use some types of wood mulch as playground mulch if you choose. Regular mulch isn’t as safe as playground chips but it’s not necessarily dangerous. The biggest risk is a few splinters. 

For more info, check out my guide: Playground Wood Chips Vs Mulch: What’s the Difference?

Cedar Mulch

Cedar mulch can work well. It lasts a long time. You may only have to add to it every 4-5 years. It also has a pleasant smell. Cedar mulch can also help repel certain pests such as ants and termites. It is also a very attractive mulch. It has a nice reddish color.  Cedar can have sharp edges and cause splinters. It’s also more expensive than other mulch options. Cypress mulch is also an option.

Shredded Mulch

Most shredded mulch is made from a blend of different trees. It is a byproduct of the lumber industry. It is ground into a range of textures and comes in different colors depending on the type of trees used. This material is cheap and easy to come by. The drawback is that it is jagged. It has sharp edges and it can cause splinters. It’s not recommended for playground mulch. You wouldn’t want to walk on it with your bare feet. It’s better in your flower beds. 

Wood Chips

Wood chips are made from chopped up pieces of wood. They can come from hardwood trees or softwood trees. They are smoother than shredded mulch and less likely to cause slivers. Sometimes it’s possible to find wood chips for free. They are made from waste. Regular wood chips aren’t quite as safe as engineered wood fiber or playground wood chips. They aren’t quite as smooth and they could contain some contaminants. 

A playground with wood mulch

How to Choose the Best Mulch

Before choosing a playground mulch, consider the following:

  • Cost- Engineered wood fiber is the cheapest type of mulch that is safe for playground use. Rubber mulch is more expensive. Other types of wood chips are cheaper than EWF but aren’t as safe. 
  • Environmental impact- Engineered wood fiber is the most environmentally friendly type of playground mulch. It is an organic material. It breaks down over time and turns into soil. Rubber mulch is inorganic. It is not eco friendly. It causes pollution. It can introduce microplastics, heavy metals, and other contaminants into the environment as it breaks down. When you want to remove it, you may need to remove the top layer of soil to get rid of the plastic particles. 
  • Longevity- Pea grave is the longest lasting. It will last forever if you keep it clean. Rubber mulch lasts around 20 years. Engineered wood fiber can last for 5-8 years.  
  • Aesthetics- Looks are subjective but most people find engineered wood fiber to be the most attractive playground ground cover because it’s a natural material. It blends in better. Rubber mulch can work well if you want a bright and colorful ground cover but it doesn’t look natural.
  • Maintenance- Engineered wood fiber needs to be topped up every 2-3 years because it will degrade over time. Rubber mulch doesn’t need as much maintenance. You may have to top it up every 5 years or so.
  • Safety- Engineered wood fiber is the safest playground mulch. It provides good cushioning and it is hypoallergenic. It is designed to be splinter-free. Rubber mulch provides more cushioning and will not cause splinters. The problem is that rubber mulch can release gaseous volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This problem gets worse when it’s hot out. These can be considered a carcinogen. They can also cause minor health problems in some people including nausea and sinus irritation. Pea gravel and sand aren’t quite as safe. They don’t provide as much cushioning. Whichever mulch you choose, it needs to be the proper depth to be considered safe.

Final Thoughts

For most playgrounds, the best kind of mulch is engineered wood fiber. It’s safe for kids to play on because it usually has IPEMA certification. It’s also relatively affordable and it looks nice. It’s also a natural material that doesn’t cause any pollution. You can use other types of wood chips or bark. Some are safer than others. Rubber mulch can also work well for playgrounds but it is less environmentally friendly. 

When choosing a mulch for your playground, make sure it doesn’t have any sharp edges that could cause cuts or splinters. Also, make sure it provides enough cushioning if someone were to fall on it. Whichever playground mulch you choose, I hope this guide has helped you in making your decision. 

Which type of mulch did you use on your playground? Share your experience in the comments below!

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The Best Playground Ground Cover

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