Many of us remember the playsets of our childhood. Depending on where you played, the ground below them ranged from hard and unforgiving concrete to much softer and less painful wood mulch and grass. So, what should you put under your playset?
Mulch and grass still have their uses, but there is much more for you to choose. There are two basic categories for material under your playset: loose-fill and solid-fill.
Loose-fill packs the area with large amounts of specific material like wood mulch. Solid-fill is poured or grown and covers the entire base in a sheet of material like grass or concrete. Even once you pick the basic style you want to use, there is a lot to choose from in each category. Let’s walk through each.
Loose Fill Materials
Loose-fill materials generally require less skill to put in. Once you build the set, you usually pour a bunch of loose-fill around the structure and rake or shovel it to cover the optimal areas to protect your child.
Loose-fill is not the best option if you have toddlers. The small pieces are easy to put in their mouth, and it can become a choking hazard.
Wood Mulch or Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF)
Wood Mulch is a classic playground fill material. EWF is wood that has been ground up to be more fibrous. It often removes the bark.
On the upside, it is inexpensive, you can find it everywhere, and it is easy to use. It is not the softest material out there, but it is far more forgiving than other options.
On the downside, wood mulch can hide hazards like broken glass. It is an excellent place for mold and insects to live, and if you don’t rake it often enough or contain it well, it will spread out and lose its effectiveness. It also tends to extend into the rest of the yard, which can be a pain to clean.
- Cost: Mulch has a low, upfront price. However, you will have to replace it regularly. So, it will add cost for it every year or two.
- Maintenance: You have to rake mulch often to ensure that it is in the spots where it will help your children the most. Also, you have to replace it every year. That will mean some extra work for you in the spring.
- Safety: Wood mulch is good at absorbing impact. Less than a foot of mulch can handle a seven-foot fall for a kid. Wood absorbs water well, which helps keep the play area less slippery. You do have to watch out for splinters, though.
- Aesthetic appeal: Wood mulch looks good. It can also smell good, especially at first. You can pick from various colors to match your house or other mulch in flower beds.
Pea gravel uses small pebbles to help cushion falls on a playground.
It has become less popular as a filler because it can become harder than the dirt it covers if it isn’t maintained correctly. Other hazards can hide in it, like broken glass, so you have to check.
It still has some use because, when used right, it offers a playing surface that is resistant to microbes and doesn’t attract wildlife. The gravel can get everywhere, though, just like mulch, so you have to clean up around the play area, or it will get into your yard.
- Cost: Pea gravel has a low starting cost, and it is easy to set up. Though you have to replace it, it lasts longer than wood mulch. You won’t be out there every year changing it out.
- Maintenance: You have to rake or shovel pea gravel to stay in the spots that will help the most. You also want to make sure that it hasn’t broken down too much. When it becomes too fine, it loses effectiveness.
- Safety: Pea gravel does offer some protection from falls. Nine inches of gravel can protect from a five-foot fall. It is not great for traction and can cause slips.
- Aesthetic appeal: It looks very natural, and there is a peacefulness to the pea gravel’s appearance, mostly when fresh. If it starts to get broken down, it can begin to look less appealing.
Sand is a classic playground filler. Kids love to play in it, and though it can get everywhere, it is usually hard to notice once it is spread out over an area.
Sand is also one of the least shock-absorbent fillers you can choose. It is also tough to keep clean. It will attract local animals, and if not properly maintained, it can become a large kitty litter for outdoor cats.
- Cost: It is a very inexpensive option at first. Sand is easy to get and easy to use. However, you will have to regularly replace that sand, especially if you try to keep it as clean as possible.
- Maintenance: You have to rake the sand a lot to ensure that it covers the playset’s most crucial areas. You also have to replace the sand to keep it clean and in the playset location.
- Safety: You need nine inches of sand to help with a four-foot fall. Most equipment is higher than that, so sand isn’t great for impact absorption. It is also not great for traction and can cause children to slip.
- Aesthetic appeal: Sand gives a natural appearance, and when properly maintained, it can help you feel like you are on a beach somewhere.
Solid Fill Materials
Solid-fill is more work and cost initially, but it usually has less maintenance and ongoing cost than loose-fill. It often doesn’t look as natural, but it can still look good, especially if you find complementary colors to your house.
Poured Rubber or Rubber Tiles
Rubber is quickly becoming a playground favorite at commercial and community parks. It is very shock absorbent, so it does a great job in protecting kids from falls. You can easily spot hazards on it like broken glass, and it is easy to keep clean.
On the downside, rubber usually has a high upfront cost. If the rubber is made from dark material, it can get scorching in the summer.
- Cost: Poured rubber or rubber tiles can be pricey at first. Almost all the price is loaded upfront. After that initial expenditure, you will only have to cover repairs when they are needed. Repairs are not common on rubber.
- Maintenance: Occasionally, you will have to clean it, but other than that, it doesn’t require extra care. The average lifespan for poured rubbers is upwards of a decade or more.
- Safety: When it comes to safety, you want to make sure you get your rubber from a reputable source. If it is high grade, well-tested rubber, then four inches can help with falls up to ten feet. It can also be suitable for traction.
- Aesthetic appeal: Rubber isn’t going to look natural, but you can get it in many different colors to match the look of your home well.
Grass may seem like a decent option under your playset, but it may not be. Grass isn’t very shock absorbent, and it isn’t good for traction. It looks very natural because it is the same lawn you have everywhere else.
However, if your kids are playing on it regularly, the grass will start to wear out. You will have to replace it often. Also, cutting grass around playsets can be more challenging.
- Cost: Upfront, there is no cost to grass. However, there is a cost to growing new grass when it gets worn down.
- Maintenance: You have to take care of it like you would the rest of your lawn. That includes watering, cutting, trimming, and fertilizing. In the high traffic areas, you will have to replace it often to keep any of its beneficial effects.
- Safety: It is not a safe option for most playsets. Grass can get very slippery when wet, so it isn’t great for traction. It is not very shock absorbent, so it isn’t great at cushioning falls. Once the grass dries, the hard-packed dirt won’t help at all.
- Aesthetic appeal: It looks fine at first, but as it gets worn down, it loses its visual appeal. If you can keep up the maintenance, it will look nice and natural.
When you think of turf, you may think about the old astroturf on football fields in the 80s and 90s. However, turf has come a long way since then. Modern turf feels more natural, and it can offer excellent shock absorption. It also drains well, so it dries quicker.
- Cost: There is a high initial cost to turf. However, with some minor maintenance, that first cost should be all your spending on the project.
- Maintenance: The turf is very low maintenance. You have to wash it sometimes if it gets dirty. You may also have to make minor repairs if something damages the turf.
- Safety: The safety of turf depends on the install. Turf can be placed over protective mats, and it can gain extra impact absorption from those. By itself, turf is only slightly better at shock absorption than grass, so you will have to find out what matting is used on install.
- Aesthetic appeal: Turf looks like grass. It stays green year-round, and so it will always look like fresh grass.
The days of poured concrete play areas are largely behind us. There are just so many more viable options. Poured concrete should only be used as a base for many of the other options on this list.
Concrete offers few advantages, and its major weakness is safety. There is a shock-absorbent concrete being tested, but concrete isn’t a great option until that becomes available.
- Cost: The cost for concrete slabs is mostly upfront. It is not as much as most of the solid-fills on this list.
- Maintenance: Very little care is needed. You will have to clean it if it gets dirty.
- Safety: There is almost no safety measure to poured concrete. There is no shock absorption, and it will scrape you up if you slide on it. It is ok for traction.
- Aesthetic appeal: A clean concrete slab can look nice depending on where you place it. As a base with raised edges, poured concrete can help hold in some of the loose-fill options and look very sleek.
Now that you have seen the options, you should have a better idea of what to put under your playset. Pick the material that matches your budget and provides ample safety for your kids. You should also feel comfortable with the care and maintenance. Make sure to read our full guides on playset safety and playset maintenance for more on those subjects.