Playgrounds of all kinds require a protective surface material beneath them to cushion children's falls. Wood chip playground mulch was once the only option, but it has been replaced in many areas with rubber mulch. Both are viable from a safety perspective and can be installed by most handy homeowners.
Types of Mulch
To be certified as "playground mulch," the material must undergo certification by several organizations including the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). Many of the tests are specifically for wheelchair access. For a home playground that will not require handicapped access, basic safety is most important. Mulch that has been rated as safe by the CPSC is not dyed or chemically altered. Standard wood chip gardening mulch has been processed and dyed in many cases and should not be used on a child's playground. You can purchase special playground mulch or make your own. To produce your own wood chip playground mulch, you can chip unwanted trees or old Christmas trees into chips sized between 1/2 and 3/4 inch.
Rubber mulch offers the advantage of longevity with less maintenance. This mulch is usually made from recycled materials like tires. In the long term this option saves money since it does not deteriorate over time like wood mulch, but does cost a bit more up front.
Preparing for Mulch
The process to install mulch is the same for either wood or rubber mulch. To prepare to lay mulch around the playground equipment, excavate out the ground. The CPSC recommends 9 inches of mulch for 10 feet of playground structure height. It is important to note that mulch will decompose or compress over time. Therefore, you'll want to make your mulch about 25 percent deeper than that recommended. For a structure 10 feet tall, you should plan on putting 11 to 12 inches of mulch down to account for depth loss. Leave about 5 feet of clearance on all sides of the playground equipment to ensure adequate room for jump-type falls. If desired, you can choose to lay down a layer of barrier cloth over the newly excavated land. This material prevents loose wood mulch from mingling with the ground beneath, slowing decomposition, and also prevents weeds from growing up into your new playground.
After excavating the area, pour the mulch into place. Create a barrier around the perimeter to contain the loose material. The barrier can be made of the following materials: standard wooden railroad ties, pressure-treated 2 by 4 lumber or plastic retaining walls that are made for playgrounds.