Best Playground Ground Coverings - Our 2021 Reviews
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The Best Playground Ground Coverings for Your Backyard

You probably hardly heard of ground coverings for playgrounds before owning a backyard and having kids around. For most of us, it’s an afterthought, something we take as a given every time we take our kids to the playground. However, a firm but soft surface is a vital component of safe play – one that allows for running, jumping, and inevitably falling without risk of injury for our little ones.

If you’re a bit confused with all the different surfaces available for your playground, don’t worry, we’re here to guide you through the pros and cons of the most relevant types of mulch, and what we consider to be the best playground ground coverings.

Backyard Boss Top 5 Mulch for Playground in 2021

PRODUCT FEATURES
Playsafer Rubber Mulch Nuggets  - The Best Playground Ground Coverings for Your BackyardPlaysafer Rubber Mulch Nuggets
  • Material: Recycled Tires
  • Available Quantity: up to 2,000 pounds
  • Weather Resistant: Yes
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Margo Garden Products Rainforest Gravel - The Best Playground Ground Coverings for Your BackyardMargo Garden Products Rainforest Gravel
  • Material: Pea Gravel
  • Available Quantity: 30 pounds
  • Weather Resistant: Yes
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Vundahboah Amish Goods Cedar Wood Mulch - The Best Playground Ground Coverings for Your BackyardVundahboah Amish Goods Cedar Wood Mulch
  • Material: Natural Cedar
  • Available Quantity: up to 2.5 pounds
  • Weather Resistant: Yes
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EZ Straw Mulch  - The Best Playground Ground Coverings for Your BackyardEZ Straw Mulch
  • Material: Processed Straw
  • Available Quantity: 22 pounds
  • Weather Resistant: Yes
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Rubber-Cal Eco-Sport Interlocking Tile - The Best Playground Ground Coverings for Your BackyardRubber-Cal Eco-Sport Interlocking Tile
  • Material: Recycled Rubber
  • Available Quantity: Pack of 5
  • Weather Resistant: Yes
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How We Picked

This article is a summary of the practical, hands-on experience we’ve gathered as parents. Through the years we were able to try different types of ground coverings and observe their pros and cons. This has given us a clear picture of what to look for when buying playground surfaces and what to avoid.

We made sure to hold the highest standards in choosing which products to recommend for your playground, with some bonus tips to help you choose one for yourself. We examined their safety, value for money, durability, environmental impact, ease of installment, and even the aesthetic purposes of each option. Finally, we turned to unbiased and honest consumer reviews of each product to learn their personal experiences with it. From there, it was easy to see which ones belonged in our final five.

Best Play Safe Mulch

Playsafer Rubber Mulch Nuggets
    This rubber mulch provides safe padding for high-impact outdoor play areas.

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Why We Like It: This mulch is made of recycled tires that have been processed to be non-toxic and safe for children. These rubber nuggets are incredibly shock-absorbant and easy to install, effortlessly providing safe padding for clumsy children. It’s also weather-proof and prevents dust, mud, mold, and insect growth while keeping the soil healthy and moisturized. It’s low maintenance, long-lasting, available in a variety of colors, and has IPEMA certification and ADA Approval.

Who Should Buy It: This would be great for those looking for the most shock absorbance in their mulch!

Best Budget Option

Margo Garden Products Rainforest Gravel
    This is an affordable way to landscape and create a distinct border around your playground.

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Why We Like It: Pea gravel is another popular choice for playgrounds and provides them with a natural touch. These small stones are often used in landscaping and gardening to help retain soil moisture while preventing erosion and weed growth. What it lacks in shock absorption is made up for in its microbial properties and how it doesn’t attract animals.

Who Should Buy It: This is a great option for anyone looking to create a border around their playground.

Best Wood Chips

Vundahboah Amish Goods Cedar Wood Mulch
    Cedar mulch gives children an insect-less space to have unapologetic fun in their playgrounds.

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Why We Like It: These cedar wood chips and shavings are great for outdoor landscaping. Using these provides your yard with a fresh cedar aroma that naturally repels insects. It also promotes moisture retention in soil, helps regulate ground temperature, and stops weeds from growing.  This wood is naturally harvested and hand-sourced from the Old Order Amish in Tennessee and comes in big batches that make it easy to set up. Cedar’s natural oils also help it last much longer than other natural wood mulch varieties.

Who Should Buy It: This would be fantastic for those worried about insect bites and styling their playground.

Best Straw Mulch

EZ Straw Mulch
    This straw mulch minimizes mud that a child could collect while playing outdoors.

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Why We Like It: This mulch is made of processed straw that’s been specially treated with a Tackifier, a natural bonding agent that holds the straw in place even with wind and rain. It’s specially designed for seeding, meaning it also helps nourish the soil and keep it healthy. This provides kids with natural and soft padding and helps prevent mud from sticking to their shoes and tracking it indoors!

Who Should Buy It: This is great for those with wet gardens since the straw helps manage muddy areas.

Best for Young Children

Rubber-Cal Eco-Sport Interlocking Tile
    Rubber tiles are a neat solution with huge upsides. Once installed they are almost zero-maintenance and can be easily cleaned.

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Why We Like It: Peace of mind can be everything when it comes to toddlers. Not only are these rubber tiles durable and wear-resistant, but their 3/4 inch thickness is also designed to absorb shock and impact. For this reason, rubber tiles are the best option when it comes to small children.

Who Should Buy It: People with toddlers as there’s no other playground ground covering that offers the same degree of safety for children of that age.

Things to Consider When Choosing Playground Ground Covering

brown and blue swings on playground mulch
Image credits: Thorsten Bareuther via Unsplash

With such a diverse range of options, it can become difficult to decide what’s best for you. Our advice for you is to come down with a list of attributes that are most important for you and assign them an order of priority. There are tons of factors that go into choosing a ground cover for your playground and they vary from person to person. However, the safety, cost, longevity, sustainability, and possibly aesthetics of each material are universal considerations.

Safety

This is more clear-cut in case you have toddlers, as their safety should be clearly on top of your list. The height of your playground is also a determining factor in its safety. The taller the set, the better the ground cover needs to be at absorbing shock. Loose options like shredded rubber can safely absorb the energy of falls, with six inches of the material being able to protect falls from up to ten feet.

Shredded wood and pebble gravel can also buffer a fall from several feet, although the former needs to be raked and in good conditions to be loose enough to offer adequate protection. Having said that, some ground coverings that may be good for school-age children, such as wood mulch and straw, might not be the best option for toddlers. Natural mulch options can also have insect-repelling and anti-mold properties. When in doubt, check the International Play Equipment Manufacturer’s Association (IPEMA) for their safety standards. Since mulch is not specifically made for playgrounds, they might not have the certification but could still meet their standards.

Cost

In case your playset isn’t that tall and your children are older, then safety considerations might take a backseat to aspects like costs, maintenance, and looks. When it comes to costs you’ll need to evaluate both up-front and long-term costs. Playground ground covering comes at varying price points but not for lack of reason. Depending on the cover variety and brand, some are more costly due to being specially designed for playground use, such as rubber mulch and tiles, which serve as a long-term investment.

More affordable options, such as wood and straw mulch, are not usually specific for playgrounds and can also be used for landscaping and gardening. These are easier to harvest and replace, coming at a more budget-friendly initial cost but would typically require regular upkeep, maintenance, and replacements.

When considering the cost, the rule of thumb is that high initial investments usually come with low maintenance costs, while low initial investments could have potentially high or frequent maintenance costs. Our advice is to evaluate the total costs of ownership of every alternative over the playset’s intended lifetime and choose perhaps through financing, the one that’ll provide lifetime savings and the least intensive upkeep.

Longevity

Ground cover longevity is a huge factor to weigh out considering that natural wood, straw, and stone options break down much more quickly than synthetic materials. Natural mulch needs more involved maintenance thanks to organic decomposition and wear and tear. This means you should also consider if you’re willing to regularly invest your time, effort, and money for the upkeep. On the other hand, synthetic mulch lasts longer as long as it has been properly set up. These can last years and won’t require much involvement and checkups.

Sustainability

Sustainability is an important element in everything we buy, even with playground mulch. Technology has allowed mulch to be more sustainably harvested and sold, using eco-friendly processes for natural options and recycling tires for rubber materials. Mulch is also made to aid soil health through green materials, treatments, and colorants that won’t negatively impact the environment. Disposal is another facet of sustainability. While natural mulch decomposes on its own and gravel is easy to repurpose or transfer, synthetic mulch materials will need more time and care for proper disposal. If you can’t commit to proper disposal, this can help you decide on a mulch option for you.

Aesthetics

Last but not least, there’s the aesthetic component. This is something that shouldn’t be underestimated, after all, you’ll be seeing the playset daily for years to come. There’s no use in getting a cheap alternative if after a year its sight makes you sick, forcing you to buy a brand new alternative. The outdoor nature of such an undertaking tends to skew buyers to more natural-looking alternatives.

Wood mulch, sand, and pea gravel are sought-after because they look natural and compliment the outdoor feeling of most backyards and gardens. Plus, they’re friendly with the environment, unlike their synthetic counterparts. Beauty, however, is in the eye of the beholder. If hot pink shredded rubber mulch is what fancies your taste, then by all means go for it!

Playground Ground Coverings for Babies and Toddlers

toddler swinging on rubber tile playground
Image credits: Teo Zac via Unsplash

When our children were small, we prioritized peace of mind as that can be everything when it comes to toddlers. For these little ones, a playground surface that can’t be swallowed and doesn’t allow for harmful objects to fall in between is a must. For this reason, when they were toddlers, we chose to line the playground with rubber tiles.

Having said that, rubber tiles are a considerable investment and also require the surface beneath to be properly prepared before installing them. As the children grew, we realized that rubber mulch and sand provided the right amount of comfort and protection they needed for safe play.

Which Surface Do We Most Recommend for Your Playground

After all these details, you must be wondering about our preferred choice? Taking all the different variables into account, our choice for the best playground surface is the Playsafer Rubber Mulch Nuggets.

When digging deep into aspects such as safety, lifetime costs, ease of maintenance/replacement, and aesthetics, this product offers the best overall performance. We understand that these rubber nuggets are a considerable investment, yet, this initial investment is offset by years of reliable service, little to no maintenance, and peace of mind of knowing that your children are safe.

In terms of looks, although not as natural looking as wood or gravel, the breadth of colors you can choose from more than makes up for that and you’ll more than likely find the hue that perfectly matches the style of your property.

Beyond our top choice for the best playground mulch, our recommendation for you is to analyze your circumstances and choose the most suitable fit. If upfront costs are a dealbreaker, then go for what gives you the best value, strive for a compromise between safety, upkeep, and looks. In contrast, if you want a certain look, and don’t mind certain compromises to attain it, then by all means get it.

As long as your little ones are reasonably safe, doing some raking or refilling some mulch isn’t that big of a price for a playground you feel proud to gaze at. Whatever your choice, we are sure your children will relish the opportunity to go outside and play. Meanwhile, you’ll be blessed with many long afternoons of sitting down and watching them grow.

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