The Top 5 Backyard Playground Flooring Options, Ranked and Reviewed
A backyard playground for the kids keeps them outside and active in all kinds of weather. It promotes the development of gross motor skills and social skills, and it gets them out of your hair while you get stuff done. There are two main considerations for a playground in the backyard. The first is the type of equipment you’ll put up. Popular backyard playsets include climbing structures, swing sets, teeter-totters, slides, and merry-go-rounds.
The second main consideration for the backyard playground is the playground flooring, which protects against injuries related to falls from equipment. Different types of playground flooring offer different levels of protection from different heights.
Loose-fill playground flooring, such as gravel and mulch, is generally the cushioning of choice for the residential backyard playground. Each type of playground flooring has pros and cons, and they all provide a different look and feel underfoot. Which option you choose should depend on the height of your playground equipment and your budget, aesthetic, and personal preferences.
Here, I’ve ranked the top-five loose-fill choices for playground flooring from least-best to best-best, based primarily on safety. To figure out how much of any of these materials you’ll need for your backyard playground, use this handy yardage calculator. Simply enter the length and width of the play area and how many inches deep the material needs to be. You’ll find that information in this article.
Keep in mind that loose-fill materials, with the exception of rubber, lose about 25 percent of their bulk due to compaction, wear, and weathering. When deciding how much loose-fill you’ll need, you’ll need to add three inches to the depth recommended by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to compensate.
Okay, then. Ready? Here we go!
Sand for the playground flooring protects against injury while providing tons of fun for kids of all ages. After all, who doesn’t love a giant sand box? Unfortunately, the kids may not be the only critters drawn to the sand. The neighborhood foxes, raccoons, and late-night kitties may mistake your large sandbox for a litter box, which is just one downfall of sand as playground flooring. But it’s a biggie, which is one reason why sand gets the number five spot on this list. Other downsides include the annoyance of sand finding its way into your home and your child’s eyes, mouth, and butt crack. Sand can also hide sharp things below the surface, so it’s important to make sure glass and other potential hazards aren’t allowed anywhere near the backyard playground.
Ideally, you should spring for play sand rather than construction sand. Play sand contains smaller, more evenly-sized particles that make it ideal for building sand castles and such. Play sand is also washed and sieved to remove dirt and debris, which helps keep your kids’ clothes clean. Construction sand, by contrast, is dirtier, has bigger particles, and won’t stick together as well as play sand.
How Deep Does the Sand Need to Be?
According to the CPSC, you’ll need 9 inches of sand (plus three inches to make up for compaction) to protect your child from falls of up to 4 feet, making it the least shock-absorbent playground flooring material on this list. Still, sand can be ideal for a small play area with low equipment.
How Safe is Sand for Playground Flooring?
Some parents worry about the crystalline silica found in sand, which comes from the grains of quartz, one of the most commonly found minerals in the earth’s crust. In California, silica sand, including play sand, is required by Prop 65 to contain cancer warnings. That’s because silica dust can cause cancer in people who are frequently exposed to it when it’s pulverized into minuscule particles, such as during sandblasting. But unless your child is somehow creating a very fine dust with the sand and inhaling it for several hours a day, silica is perfectly safe.
Other safety issues concerning sand involve the old sand-in-the-eye gig, which is generally harmless in the long run, but you’ll want to impose a strict no sand-kicking or sand-throwing rule for the backyard playground.
How Much Does Play Sand Cost?
Play sand is a little more expensive than construction sand, but it’s worth the extra cost, since play sand is cleaner and more moldable. You can find play sand for around $5 per 0.5-cubic-foot bag at your local home improvement store. For a play area that’s 10 feet by 10 feet with a loose-fill depth of 12 inches, you would need around 3.7 cubic yards, or around 162 bags, of play sand. The roughly estimated ballpark price for that many bags of sand from your local home improvement center is $800, or roughly $220 per cubic yard.
If you’d rather go the thrifty route, buy the sand in bulk from a local landscape supply place that carries it. There’s such a place in my town that sells “plaster sand,” which is very fine, washed sand perfect for the sandbox. The bulk price? $24 a ton. The hypothetical 10’ x 10’ x 12” play area would need just over 5 tons of sand, for a price of around $120, plus another $100 or more for delivery. This adds up to a price of about $60 per cubic yard, delivered.
#4: Pea Gravel
Once upon a time in third grade, I fell off the jungle gym and landed face-first in the pea gravel, which probably saved me from some broken facial bones and teeth. But it didn’t save me from a big, fat, bloody, gravel-filled lip, over which Dennis Dierburger, the boy I was “going with,” promptly “dropped” me. So I’m not a big fan of pea gravel, as you might imagine. But that’s just me. Pea gravel is an economical choice for backyard playground flooring, and at the right depth, it protects against injury a little better than sand.
Pea gravel looks a lot less like a bathroom to four-legged critters than sand does. But pea gravel likes to get into your kid’s shoes, and pieces of gravel that end up lodged in your kids’ shoe soles can do some serious damage to your hardwood floors.
How Deep Does the Pea Gravel Need to Be?
Nine inches of pea gravel will protect your child from falls from up to 5 feet high. Add three inches for compaction, and you’ll need an initial 12 inches of pea gravel for your playground flooring.
How Safe is Pea Gravel for the Backyard Playground?
Pea gravel doesn’t invite insects, mold, or microbial organisms. The edges of the gravel are rounded for comfort. Gravel may pose a choking hazard to young’uns, so be sure to supervise your little rock-eater closely.
How Much Does Pea Gravel Cost?
Pea gravel is available in bags at your local home improvement center, but if you’re covering a lot of ground, it’s probably better to get it in bulk at a landscaping retailer. Bulk pea gravel goes for somewhere in the vague ballpark vicinity of $125 per cubic yard delivered. For a 10’ x 10’ space with a depth of 12 inches, you’ll need about 3.7 cubic yards of pea gravel.
#3 Regular Old Wood Mulch
In addition to beautifying your flower beds, regular old wood mulch can provide ample cushioning for the backyard playground. But while it’s attractive and absorbs more shock than sand and pea gravel, it’s not without its downsides. Mulch is dirty and will soil your kids’ clothes, and it’s rife with splinters if you land the wrong way. It may harbor bugs, including termites. Finally, wood mulch will need to be replenished every year, since it compacts and decomposes rather quickly.
How Deep Does Wood Mulch Need to Be for the Backyard Playground?
Wood mulch needs to be 9 inches deep to protect your child from a 7-foot fall. Add three inches for compacting, and you’ll need 12 inches of mulch. Remember that wood mulch compacts pretty quickly, and the playground will need to be topped off each year, at least.
How Safe is Wood Mulch?
Some landscaping mulch contains chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, which is present in some of the types of wood used to make mulch. CCA leaches arsenic, a known carcinogen, into the surface of the material, where it can be absorbed into a child’s skin. Even if it’s CCA-free, wood mulch may be treated with dyes and chemical herbicides or insecticides, which makes it less than ideal for a kid’s play area.
But! If you spring for organic, CCA-free, 100-percent natural, wholly untreated mulch, this material can make excellent playground flooring.
How Much Does Wood Mulch Cost?
Wood mulch is available in large bags at your local home improvement or garden center. For a 10’ x 10’ x 12-inch playground space, you’ll need about 50 bags of mulch, with a ballpark price tag of about $61 per cubic yard.
#2. Wood Playground Mulch (aka Engineered Wood Fiber)
Engineered wood fiber, known as EWF (and more commonly known as wood playground mulch,) is similar to landscaping mulch. Wood playground mulch is made from hard and soft woods, which are ground into bark-less chips between one and two inches long. EWF provides optimal cushioning, but it’s free of twigs and leaves and won’t harbor insects. It contains no dyes, and it’s free of CCA and other chemicals. It’s one of the most commonly used materials for playground flooring in public and backyard playgrounds.
How Deep Does Wood Playground Mulch Need to Be?
According to the CPSC, EWF should be at least 9 inches deep to provide protection from injuries from falls as high as 10 feet. Add three inches for compaction, for a total of 12 inches. EWF doesn’t decompose, so once you fill up the space, you should be good to go for the life of the playground, as long as the mulch stays within the playground boundaries.
How Safe is Wood Playground Mulch?
When installed at the proper depth, playground mulch has excellent impact-absorbing qualities. This popular playground flooring is certified by the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) for “impact attenuation” and the absence of foreign metals and hazardous chemicals. Wood playground mulch has about 15% fibrous content, which enables it to knit itself together to create a mat-like, wheelchair-accessible surface. Debris tends to “float” on this matted surface, so keeping the playground free of hazardous objects will be easy.
How Much Does Wood Playground Mulch Cost?
EWF playground mulch is available in bags and in bulk at larger home improvement centers. Playground mulch costs roughly $40 per cubic yard.
#1: Rubber Playground Mulch
Rubber playground mulch is rated for almost twice the fall height of other loose-fill materials like wood mulch and pea gravel. Rubber mulch is made from recycled rubber, and it’s available in a variety of colors that won’t fade or rot with time, even when exposed to the harshest of elements. Once you lay down rubber mulch, it won’t need replenishing unless a whole lot of it escapes the backyard playground enclosure.
How Deep Does Rubber Mulch Need to Be?
You need just 6 inches of rubber mulch to protect against injuries from falls from up to 10 feet high. Rubber mulch doesn’t compress the same way the other loose-fill materials do, so you don’t need to add the extra 3 inches.
How Safe is Rubber Mulch for the Backyard Playground?
Rubber mulch is certified for playground flooring by IPEMA. It doesn’t attract pests, and it inhibits the growth of mold and fungi. Since it won’t rot or decay, it won’t pose an allergy threat to sensitive children. Rubber mulch is the safest material for the backyard playground, meeting CPSC safety guidelines and certified to be 99.9 percent free of contaminants.
How Much Does Rubber Mulch Cost?
Rubber mulch is the most expensive option for loose-fill playground flooring. You can buy rubber mulch in 0.8-cubic-foot bags at your local home improvement store, but you’ll probably be limited to black or brown. Rubber mulch is also available by the pallet in a rainbow of colors on Amazon. The price includes free curbside delivery. Each pallet contains 75 cubic feet—about 2.75 cubic yards—and covers around 150 square feet, spread 6 inches deep. Rubber mulch runs somewhere in the vicinity of $299 per cubic yard delivered.
Look at this brilliant blue rubber mulch:
And this glorious green rubber mulch:
And this rustic red rubber mulch:
How to Keep the Playground Material Contained
To keep the loose-fill material confined to the playground, you’ll need a border. The playground border should be as high as the recommended depth of the loose-fill. You can use lumber, bricks, tree stumps, or pre-made borders. Amazon has a molded plastic playground border that comes in heights of six inches (perfect for rubber mulch) and twelve inches (ideal for other flooring materials.) Each four-foot section is four inches wide and connects together with spikes.
Once your playground is in full operation, spend time every so often returning escaped material back to the playground. Periodically, rake the playground to restore the proper depth to the flooring in high-traffic areas, which become compacted and spread out with use.
Creating an epic backyard playground for the kids encourages the development of gross motor skills and good social skills. It provides a fun backdrop for imaginary play, and it promotes physical activity to grow those muscles big and strong. The more impact-resistant the flooring for the playground, the lower the risk for injuries related to falls. Quality playground flooring is a wise investment considering the high cost, misery, and inconvenience of a broken limb (knock on wood.) I hope this review helped gel it all together for you! Let us all know which option you chose, and why, and whether you’re happy with it.