What Type of Mulch Is Safe to Use for a Child's Play Area?

A kids' play area is a place for fun, games, a little roughhousing and, without doubt, some tumbles. That's why figuring out a good substance to put under your playground equipment is just as important as selecting the swing set and jungle gym. When you consider safety in a child's play area, you need to pick a ground cover that will reduce injuries, like broken bones, to a child who falls. But you'll also want to be sure that the mulch you choose is not toxic or harmful to kids.

Friends during the play in fresh air
credit: gpointstudio/iStock/GettyImages

Mulch for Kids

Most gardeners associate mulch with material spread over flower and garden beds. The best types of garden mulch reduce weeds, regulate soil temperature and decompose into the soil, adding nutrients. Other types of mulch are used on garden footpaths to prevent any plants from growing, and these mulches can contain chemical preservatives.

A mulch intended for playground use is a different animal entirely. You want it to be a buffer between child and hard ground, stand up to lots of traffic and last a fairly long time. But whatever mulch you select, it must not contain any ingredients that can harm kids' skin or lungs.

Mulch Options

When you first think about what to use to soften the ground near a child's play area, you might consider thick, soft grass. Grass can be soft and pleasant to tumble on, but that's only at first. As time passes, and little feet run back and forth, jumping and rolling on it, the grass and soil get compacted.

Three types of mulch are frequently recommended by experts for use in children's play areas. They are sand, rubber mulch and wood mulch. If you put a layer of any of these, 8 to 20 inches deep, you provide a durable, springy surface to cushion falls and absorb shocks.

Sand, Wood or Rubber Mulch

Sand, wood and rubber make mulches that experts recommend as safe for children's playgrounds. That doesn't mean any of them is perfect.

Sand can be a good and inexpensive choice for mulch, and, in and of itself, it presents no dangers to a child's health. But it may not stay clean very long. Outdoor cats and dogs tend to use sand as a litter box. It also has the disadvantage of blowing away easily.

Hardwood trees like chestnut, hickory, beech and oak make a tough mulch that does not include any fillers. This mulch can be made of shredded wood or chipped bark, and it is heavy enough to stay in place on slopes in rain and wind. For flat, well-drained yards, you could safely use shredded or chipped cypress or pine. Wood is a safe mulch for kids as long as the wood doesn't contain any products used to resist decay, like toxic chromated copper arsenate (also called CCA). Check with the merchant or packaging to find out if the mulch contains harmful chemicals.

Rubber mulch, called crumb rubber or tire crumb, is essentially chopped up tires. This mulch is obviously not natural or organic, but it is often used for synthetic turf in sports fields, running tracks, golf courses and playgrounds. Crumb rubber is soft, but lasts a long time and holds up to wear, as well as providing a cushion against falls. This type of mulch allows water to drain through it quickly, so the surface isn't slippery. However, many worry that the chemicals used in tires are not eliminated by shredding the tires, and that rubber mulch isn't good for kids. Studies to date have not found negative health risks from rubber mulch, but some question whether the studies have been sufficiently broad to be helpful, so use your best judgment.