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  • Lynda Bevere

What is the Best Mulch for a Playground?

Are you putting in a playground or swing set in your backyard?  Are you not sure what to put underneath it?  Listed below are the most common options for playground surface materials and why or why not they are the best option for your home playground.

Swing in Backyard with Flowers

wood chip mulch

Traditional Wood Mulch 


  • Landscape mulch is inexpensive initially to buy and install.

  • Is readily available in bags or in bulk in cubic yards from all landscape and home retailers.

  • Is attractive, has a natural look and can coordinate nicely with your planting beds and landscape. 

  • It is one of the most eco-friendly options if you buy from a local landscaper or arborist in bulk.


  • It requires more maintenance than other options because you will need to keep replacing it as it breaks down.

  • Mulch is somewhat dirty if children play in it. 

  • You will need to remove occasional weeds.

  • It does not provide as much shock absorption as some other options.

Engineered Wood Fiber Playground Mulch


  • Since it is manufactured from the inside of trees, it is less likely to cause splinters and is a more consistent material than traditional wood mulch.

  • When installed at its recommended 12 inches at least depth, it provides good shock absorption from falls.

  • It is a less expensive option than rubber mulch or artificial turf.

  • Is attractive and can be incorporated easily into your home landscape design.


  • Not as readily available as traditional wood mulch and may have to be bought from commercial playground install companies.

  • It costs more than regular mulch.

  • It usually is only available and delivered in bulk and thus not found in bags for easy installation.

Natural Grass 


  • It is inexpensive to buy and grow.  

  • Grass seed or sod is readily available from landscape and home retailers.


  • Grass does not hold up to kids playing on it and will turn to mud in wet weather.

  • Unless there is appropriate sunlight, it may be hard to grow under a playground.

  • As it gets compacted, the ground will become really hard and not provide much shock absorption in the event of a fall.   

Pea Gravel


  • It is fairly inexpensive when bought in bulk.  

  • It is attractive and can be integrated nicely into a landscape.


  • It is pretty hard in the event of a fall.

  • The stones easily get kicked into the grass or other surrounding areas.

  • Kids love to pick stones up and throw them around.

  • It may require periodic weeding.

  • It will require replacement periodically.

playground on artificial turf

Artificial Grass or

Synthetic Turf


  • It is a solid and durable surface.

  • If applied with an underlayer, it provides good impact absorption, shock absorbency and a safe surface.

  • It will always remain green.

  • It is low maintenance and should last for years.  


  • It is very expensive to install.

  • It is not easily repaired without substantial cost.

  • It will always be green even in the winter which may look odd in a home landscape.

  • It tends to get much hotter than natural surfaces.

Rubber Playground Mulch


  • Rubber is a safe surface and provides a soft landing in the event of a fall.

  • It requires less maintenance and replacement because it does not degrade.

  • It is eco-friendly because it is made of old rubber tires.

  • Rubber mulch comes in a variety of colors.


  • It can be kicked around and end up on your grass or planting beds.

  • Doesn't degrade so wherever it goes is where it will stay until you remove it.

  • It is expensive compared to wood mulch and other options.  

  • You need to make sure it does not have toxic chemicals in it.  

  • Can be flammable and thus should not be used near or in fire-prone areas.

  • It is very difficult to remove and dispose of when it is no longer needed.



  • It provides good shock absorption.  

  • It is pretty inexpensive to buy in bulk.

  • Children enjoy playing in it.


  • It is very heavy so installation can be difficult.

  • Cats like to use sand as a litter box. 

  • It can get very dirty-looking and unattractive.

  • Sand sticks to everyone and it will inevitably get tracked into your house.

Backyard swingset on wood mulch


Although often the most recommended playground surface is rubber mulch, especially for commercial playgrounds, I am going to argue for traditional wood mulch for a backyard swingset or play area.  Why is it my choice?

Traditional wood mulch is one of the most affordable options at about 25% of the cost of rubber mulch and can be integrated easily into your landscape design.  It is eco-friendly and readily bought and delivered in bulk from local retailers. It can also be bought in bags if that is easier for you depending on your property. It is not a job you need to hire a professional to do for you.  With a bit of hard labor, you can easily and quickly install it since it is not too heavy or doesn't require special machinery to install.  Your kids can even help out with the spreading of the mulch.  While it may require more regular maintenance, it can be incorporated into your yearly mulching plan for your entire property.  Yes, it does not provide as much shock absorption as rubber or artificial turf, but it does provide some and more so than grass or stone.  Finally, it requires minimal effort to remove it or you can even reuse it on your property when your kids no longer are interested in the playground.  On the other hand,  rubber mulch will be very hard to pick up and remove from your property.

As for choosing traditional wood mulch as opposed to engineered wood playground mulch, the fact the engineered mulch does not cause splinters and is less dirty does not overcome for me the fact it is more costly and difficult to buy. It also does not seem to provide any more shock absorption than regular wood mulch if installed at the same depth.



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