Playground safety is critical, and the surface underneath equipment is an essential component to consider. Since at least 70 percent of playground injuries are fall-related, having adequate protection for your kids around the playset is important to plan for.
One of the most popular types of playset surfaces is wood mulch. But is it safe? We explore that below.
Wood Playground Mulch Types
Of the various playground surfaces, the Consumer Product Safety Commission gives wood mulch a better rating than average. It is one of the more common materials used as a playground surface, but there are several types of wood mulch from which to choose.
Shredded mulch is the same type of mulch that you see in gardens. The varying types of wood pieces, cut or shredded, are typically recycled byproducts of the paper and lumber industries.
While more prone to causing splinters, shredded wood mulch is heavier than other types and stays put better. This mulch comes in a range from coarse to fine, and something in the middle is best for a playground.
These soft or hardwood pieces are straight from the tree and likely free of any harsh chemicals that you might find in synthetic materials. Wood chips are easy to find and can potentially be free if you know where to ask around.
Unless advertised and 100 percent bark, bark wood mulch also has some wood from directly underneath the bark. With a slower decomposition and darker color, this wood mulch lasts longer than others.
EWF (Engineered Wood Fiber)
Engineered wood fiber mulch is one of the most popular and recommended playground surfaces. This popularity is because it provides excellent fall protection and has the highest quality and safety ratings.
EWF contains both hard and softwoods ground into a pulpy fibrous texture. It’s less durable, however, and eventually turns into sawdust, creating a mess.
Pros and Cons of Wood Mulch
Even though wood mulch is one of the better options out there, some disadvantages still come with its advantages. Here’s a quick list of the pros and cons of wood playground mulch.
- More affordable most of the time: Depending on the type of wood mulch, it can be easier to find and may even be free if you get it locally.
- Excellent impact absorption: A 9-inch layer of wood mulch allows a safe fall from up to 10 feet.
- Easy to install: Very simple to spread mulch around your playset.
- Looks natural: A wood surface looks more natural than others and can come in varying shades and tones.
- Splinter potential: Trips and falls can result in splinters from varying sizes of wood pieces.
- Wood mulch can require significant maintenance: Yearly replacement, checking for hidden items, et cetera, can be time-consuming.
- Recycled wood may contain chemicals or inorganic materials: Dyes, preservatives, or other unhealthy elements can end up contaminating the mulch.
- Spread: Mulch in areas with heavy traffic becomes easily displaced.
Another downside to consider is that mulch is susceptible to weather conditions. It can freeze in the cold, becoming solid and potentially harmful or blow away with heavy winds. Much might also float away in flood conditions and encourage the growth of mold or mildew when sitting in water.
Wood Mulch Alternatives
While wood mulch is a safe choice for playgrounds, there are other options to consider. Each option has distinct strengths and weaknesses, and the right choice depends on many factors.
Artificial or Natural Grass
Artificial grass is a low maintenance option that looks great and has anti-slip properties. The moderate impact protection has the potential for improvement, with padding to go underneath available. However, it can be expensive and clash with any unhealthy grass nearby.
Also a low upkeep choice, natural grass grows naturally and is super eco-friendly. Shock absorption, however, isn’t the best, and real grass gets slippery with rain.
Small, round, and smooth pebbles are a decent option for playgrounds, but there are some things to keep in mind. While it’s affordable, easy to put in place, and drains quickly, it is also relatively unsafe.
There isn’t much impact protection, and the small pieces are easy to consume or put in body parts such as noses and mouths.
It may seem a little silly, but this can be incredibly tempting for a child. Rocks are not easy to get out of tiny nostrils! Even so, pea gravel is ideal for all seasons and might do well for older kids.
Another standard option, rubber mulch, usually contains shredded up tires. These recycled tires provide excellent cushioning and impact absorption. However, there is a possibility that the material retains chemicals from its previous life.
Despite that, rubber mulch is low maintenance and won’t decompose as wood does. It also won’t cause splinters and sometimes comes in various colors. Keep in mind that it can get hot to the touch in hot weather and produce a strong odor.
Sand is an affordable, easy to access option for playgrounds. It absorbs impacts well and won’t retain water when it rains.
Unfortunately, over time, it can become expensive. Frequent refilling and raking are necessary to keep it clean and evenly distributed.
Tiled or Poured Rubber
Poured and tiled rubber surfaces are incredibly safe, anti-slip, low-maintenance, and require professional installation. Because of this, the initial cost for materials and installation is high, but its longevity can be totally worth it.
Rubber tile or pour is the best surface for a toddler-focused playground. Additionally, unlike many other playground surfaces, there are no potential ADA compliance issues.
The best playground surface depends on a few factors. While cost is an important factor, we have to consider safety first. Anything that has to do with children should have safety, security, and well-being in mind, especially for entertainment.
The age of the children who will use the playground is the most important. Safety is the number one priority, and each age group has unique needs. For example, younger kids may need fewer small objects to distract them, but older kids won’t have much of an issue.
Another element to consider is the height of the equipment. There will be a need for thicker padding with higher playground equipment. Depending on the material, this amount will be more or less.
A specific amount of rubber mulch has more impact protection than the same amount of wood mulch. Therefore, there needs to be more wood mulch to absorb the same impact that the rubber type can. Each possible playground surface has advantages and disadvantages. Out of all of them, wood is one of the more well-rounded ones.