Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

Playground Wood Chips Vs Mulch: What’s the Difference?

By: Zac Friedman

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Playground mulch is usually made from either wood chips or rubber. Cedar, pine, and bark dust are commonly used. Regular mulch is usually made from organic materials such as wood chips, tree bark, compost, manure, leaves, grass clippings, sawdust, or straw. Inorganic materials like rock or rubber can also be used as mulch. There are many different types of mulch.

Playground mulch is designed to provide cushioning for children if they fall. It is also designed to be clean, hypoallergenic, and free of potentially harmful compounds. It makes playgrounds safer for kids. Playground mulch is also commonly used on walkways.

Regular landscape mulch is designed to retain moisture, suppress weed growth, regulate soil temperature, and add nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. It is used in flower beds and vegetable gardens. 

This guide outlines the differences and lists the pros and cons of playground chips vs mulch. We’ll cover safety, compressibility, cost, longevity, environmental friendliness, and more to help you choose the best playground surfacing.

Playground Wood Chips Vs Mulch

Compressibility and Safety

The main purpose of playground chips is to provide a safe surface for kids to play on. The mulch is designed to provide cushioning so kids don’t get hurt if they fall off of the playground equipment onto the mulch or if they trip on it while they’re running around and playing.

Playground mulch is designed to compress to break kids’ falls. To achieve this, the chips are usually layered at least 12” thick. This is far thicker than regular mulch, which is usually layered 2-4” thick.

Playground mulch can help prevent major injuries, like broken bones, if a kid trips or falls on the play area. Of course, it’s not perfectly safe. A child could still get scratched up if they were to fall. Splinters are also possible. If a kid were to fall from high enough, they could still get injured. Generally, it’s a safe surface for kids to play on. 

Over time, playground chips can become compressed. This can be caused by moisture and pressure from people walking on them. When they become compressed, they get harder. When this happens, they aren’t as safe. They can’t compress and break a fall as well. At this point, you’ll have to add a fresh layer to restore the mulch. 

Playground chips can also get displaced from heavy traffic areas, such as walkways and under swings. When this happens, there is no fall protection. You’ll have to add a layer or replace the mulch. Ideally, the mulch should be at least a foot deep. 

A playground with wood chips

Allergies

Playground mulch is designed to be hypoallergenic. It is made from clean wood that comes from mature forests. This is sometimes called virgin wood. Recycled wood or waste wood is not used.

This wood does not contain any contaminants such as paint, dyes, or additives. it does not contain any chemical treatments or pesticides. Some playground mulch is made from rubber, which is also hypoallergenic.

Using these materials reduces the likelihood of people suffering allergic reactions from coming into contact with playground mulch. Most people won’t have any kind of reaction to playground mulch.

Some people can be allergic to regular mulch, depending on what it’s made of. Mulch can also contain dust or mold that can cause a reaction in some people. Pets can also be allergic to mulch. Some mulches, such as compost, could contain pathogens.

A swingset

Mulch Shape

Playground wood chips are processed in a different way from regular wood chips that you would use for landscaping. Playground chips are made only from wood. They don’t contain any bark. 

The wood is cut in a way that reduces the likelihood of slivers. It is cut and processed so it has a reasonably smooth surface. There aren’t any sharp edges. This design helps to prevent cuts if a child were to fall on the mulch. Slivers and cuts are still possible just unlikely due to the shape of the chips and the way they’re processed. 

Some playground chips are made from rubber. These have no sharp edges. They also eliminate the possibility of slivers. Sometimes the rubber is shaped into a flat pad. It is one continuous piece.

Regular wood mulch that you would use for landscaping is often shredded or chipped. It can contain sharp shards of wood that could cause cuts or splinters. These are not safe for playgrounds.  

Sharp Edges

Playground mulch is usually made from fibrous trees. This allows the chips to flex rather than break when people walk on them. They are less brittle.

The pieces are also cut in a way that makes it harder for the pieces to break. The pieces are shorter and thicker than regular mulch. This reduces the likelihood of chips breaking into dangerously sharp shards. 

Regular mulch is made from more brittle wood. The pieces are usually thinner as well. When a regular piece of wood mulch breaks, it could break with a sharp edge. For this reason, you wouldn’t want to use regular mulch for playgrounds.

Quality Control

Playground wood chips are manufactured with higher standards than regular wood mulch. There won’t be any foreign materials, twigs, rocks, bark, recycled pallets, or waste wood mixed in. It will only contain engineered wood fiber. The standards are more strict. 

Regular mulch doesn’t really have any standards. Sometimes filler materials are used. They could be different types of wood or recycled wood. There could be foreign objects in the mulch. For this reason, regular mulch isn’t really safe for playgrounds.

Chemicals 

Some mulches can contain chemicals that can trigger an allergic reaction or skin irritation in some people. These chemicals can also make their way into the environment where they can harm plants, insects, and animals. 

When choosing mulch for playground use or for your garden, you should make sure it doesn’t contain any pesticides. You should also make sure it doesn’t contain any chromated copper arsenate. This chemical is commonly used for wood preservation. You can usually tell if wood has been treated with this preservative because it will have a green tint. Treated wood mulch doesn’t belong in a playground or in your garden. 

Playground Wood Chips Vs Rubber Mulch

Wood chip mulch and rubber mulch are both popular choices for playgrounds. They can be used for both commercial playgrounds and backyard playgrounds. Both materials have their own benefits and drawbacks. 

Wood Chips

A playground with wood chips

Wood chips are more environmentally friendly. They are a completely natural material. They are made from chipped-up tree trunks and tree limbs. Wood chips don’t introduce any chemicals or inorganic materials into the environment. Organic mulches, like wood chips, biodegrade over time. They are also attractive. They have a nice natural look that most people love. Wood chips blend in with the natural environment.

One drawback of wood chips is that they can be messy. It doesn’t really matter what kind of edging you use. They will get on the grass, walkways, parking lot, etc. You’ll need to clean them up once in a while. 

Another drawback of wood chips is that they need to be replaced more frequently. They decompose over time because wood is an organic material. They also get compacted. Every year or two, you’ll have to add a fresh layer of material on top.

There is also a risk of slivers with wood chips. It’s also an uneven surface that people can trip on. In addition, wood chips don’t offer wheelchair access because they are uneven. For this reason, they aren’t ideal for areas where people with disabilities may need to access. 

Personally, I think wood chips are the best option for most playgrounds. They aren’t right for all playgrounds.

Rubber Mulch

A playground with rubber mulch

Rubber is longer lasting playground surface material. It doesn’t degrade like wood because it is an inorganic material. After it’s installed, it doesn’t really need any maintenance other than cleaning. It will last for many years.  

Another benefit of rubber playground surfaces is that they are more accessible for children and parents with disabilities. Most rubber surfaces are flat. Wheelchairs can easily roll over it.

You could also argue that rubber is safer. It doesn’t have any sharp edges. It won’t cause splinters. Rubber can also be softer and more compressible. It does a better job of breaking the impact of a fall. In addition, the surface is even so people are less likely to trip on it. 

One drawback of rubber mulch is that it can emit gasses when it gets hot out. Chemicals in the rubber can leach into the air, where people can breathe them. These chemicals come from the hydrocarbons that are used to make the rubber. Sometimes old tires are ground up to make rubber mulch. These contain toxins that can leach out into the environment.

Over time, the rubber can also break down into tiny particles. These can be considered microplastics. These particles are harmful to the environment. Particularly marine life. 

Another Option: Pea Gravel 

Pea gravel can also be used for playgrounds. It is made from small stones that are smoothed from weathering. The stones are the size of peas. Theat’s where the name comes from.

Pea gravel can offer some cushioning if it’s at has a minimum depth of 9 inches. It isn’t as soft as wood chips or rubber but it can help break falls. It also won’t cause slivers. In addition, it’s affordable and easy to install. 

There are some drawbacks to consider. Pea gravel isn’t as soft as other mulches. It shifts when you walk on it. It can also be difficult to clean. In some jurisdictions, it is not legal to use pea gravel for public playgrounds for safety reasons. 

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

A Note About Regular Mulch

There are a number of benefits of regular mulch. It is designed to degrade and provide nutrients to your garden beds to improve plant growth. It also helps with weed control by preventing weed seeds from germinating. In addition, it helps with soil temperature regulation by shading the soil surface. It also helps with soil moisture preservation by reducing the rate of water evaporation. Regular mulch is great for landscaping but it should not be used as a playground ground cover.

Final Thoughts

There are lots of different mulches that can be used on playgrounds, walkways, and in landscaping. Playground wood chips and regular wood mulch are similar. They are both made from the same types of trees. They are both used as ground covering. 

There are some differences. You shouldn’t use regular mulch on playgrounds because it could be a safety issue. It can cause splinters. It can have sharp edges. In addition, it could contain various contaminants that could be dangerous for children.

Playground mulch is designed to be a safe material for kids to play on. It is designed to provide cushioning in case kids fall. It also is designed to have a smooth texture that won’t give slivers or break into sharp edges. In addition, it’s hypoallergenic.

When it comes to choosing between wood chips or rubber mulch, I personally believe wood chips are the better option because they are more environmentally friendly. They are made from organic matter. They don’t introduce any chemicals or microplastics into the environment. 

Whichever kind of mulch you use, hopefully, this guide helps you understand the differences between playground chips and regular mulch. 

Which type of mulch do you use? Share your experience in the comments below!

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Playground Wood Chips Vs Mulch: Whats' the Difference?

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