Backyard Playground Surfacing: What Are The Options?

Kids on playset shadow on ground

Photo credit: litratcher via VisualHunt / CC BY

For any child lucky enough to have one, a backyard playset is a wonderful part of growing up. Given the opportunity, most kids will happily spend hours on swings, monkey bars, slides and the like. So these structures need to be as safe as possible.

We want our children to get outside, explore, bond with each other, have fun, and get the full benefit of fresh air and exercise. But along with that, safety is naturally an important concern for any parent. So you may well be asking: "What should go under our new playset?"

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While occasional bruises and scraped knees happen as part of the process of growing up, we need to do our utmost to protect not only our kids but neighborhood children as well from more serious injuries.

The most important element (apart from buying solid play equipment to begin with) is the ground covering on which it is installed. There's quite a wide range of materials available, both natural and synthetic.

While there is no one-size-fits-all application, and no single best option when it comes to playground surfaces, there are several that will provide you with adequate safety and peace of mind.

Some playground surfaces are expensive, others provide a reasonable degree of safety without breaking the bank. For most of us living in the real world, cost is a significant factor. But it shouldn’t all come down to dollars.

Rather than focusing solely on cost, it can be helpful to look at what will best serve your family's needs over the years the swing set or playset will get the most use.

Factors to Consider When Deciding on a Playground Surface

Before settling on any particular kind of surface material to put under your swing set, here are some questions you might want to bear in mind:

  • What are the actual upfront costs with this option?
  • How much will it cost to maintain, repair, or replenish over the next 5 to 10 years?
  • If you choose a material that will decompose over time, the disadvantage is that this will require ongoing maintenance and topping up...
  • ... However, if you're willing to do this, the advantage of natural decomposition is that once you stop topping up, it will naturally disappear. So you won't be left with a mountain of rubber or pebbles to get rid of once the family has grown up and left home.
  • Do you want a DIY project, or are you willing for professionals to put the ground surface in place?
  • Does it have to blend in with the natural environment, or are you looking for a splash of color?
  • How will the local environment affect this preferred surface?
  • How frequently and heavily will the playground be used?
  • Which surface is likely to give you the greatest peace of mind?

Regardless of the Playground Surface You Go For, You Need a Space

In order to install any backyard play structure properly, you need a patch that's large enough to house the playset itself with space for a safe zone all around. Very importantly, the surface needs to be flat and level.

After you’ve chosen your location, the area may need to be leveled or graded to ensure a flat surface and adequate drainage. Also, you’ll need to be in a space that is open and free of tree branches, power cables, clothes lines and anything else that could get in the way.

Once the area of your backyard is prepared, it's time to decide on a ground surface.

"What about using the grass that's already there?"

backyard playset on lawn

Image Source: CC BY-SA 1.0

This is an obvious question to ask.

Yes, it's natural - it's easy, as it's already in place, and it looks good, so grass is a popular choice to go under a playset or swing set.

But it has drawbacks: most importantly, lawn doesn't provide much cushioning in the event of a fall. Though the grass itself is soft, the ground it's growing in is hard and unforgiving. And in high-traffic areas, the blades of grass get worn away, leaving bald patches.

Apart from that, grass is fairly high maintenance: needs mowing , fertilizing, weeding - and drainage can be an issue.

To cap it all, grass as a living plant needs watering - which isn't good for your playset or swing set, whether it's made from metal or wood.

There are other options...

If you decide to look further, you have two main types of ground cover to choose from that will provide a shock-absorbing safety play surface: 1) Loose Fill and 2) Non-Movable.

Loose Fill surface material is (as you would expect) made up of loose pieces or particles that are not stuck together. Available options include wood mulch, engineered wood fiber (EWF), rubber mulch, pea gravel and sand.

Non-Movable These are generally more expensive than loose fill. There are four main choices: poured rubber, bonded rubber, rubber tiles or mats, and artificial turf.

Loose Fill

Loose Fill playground surfaces are easy to source locally, from just about any area of the country. They are inexpensive compared with other options and they get you up and running with less of a total outlay.

Depth requirements vary according to the height of your equipment and the material used as fill. the material will need to be replenished consistently to maintain the proper depth as they tend to compress over time simply due to use.

Depending on the ground cover itself and the highest point of your playground equipment, an effective surface will require anywhere from 6in to 12in of material. That’s what’s needed to provide enough protection, in the event of a fall.

Always start by laying about 25 per cent more than you ultimately need. So if, for instance, a depth of 9 inches is recommended for safety (which is the case for most loose fill materials), lay 12 inches, so that when compressed, it will still do the job properly.

TIP: If you do decide to go for a loose-fill material, one way to monitor the depth and ensure you keep the cushioning to an adequate level, is to mark any upright posts on the play structure just after you've installed the surface material. At that time it's uncompacted and at its greatest depth. So it's easy to tell when the level has gone down and you need to replenish.

There’s also a natural breakdown that occurs rather quickly with materials like mulch. Rubber chips are the exception as they are much more durable and last a lot longer.

Loose fills are difficult for strollers or for handicapped children to access - which may or not may not be an issue in your backyard.

All loose fills require a barrier to help contain the pieces in the playground area.

With no border, you can see the result below. There's a loose-fill safety surface (possibly some kind of wood chip), but nothing to keep it under control. As you can see, a bit of a mess!

No border here

By Brianegge (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the use of a containing border, loose fill can still find its way outside the play area. Often it ends up on the neighboring grass or sidewalk area - or in your kids’ pockets and shoes.

Pieces are displaced through regular use, with landing areas under swings and at the bottom of ladders and slides being especially susceptible. Weather also plays a role, with winds, heavy rains and blowing snow affecting the depth and condition of any loose-fill areas.

Loose Fill Surfacing: Points To Consider
  • Less expensive than single cover surfaces.
  • Can be a DIY job to install, so no need to hire professionals.
  • Needs containment border to keep under control, and for appearance. So remember to factor this into the cost.
  • Bits and pieces can get into shoes and clothes.
  • May be brought into the home.
  • Kids may be tempted to throw it around.
  • Less easy to keep clean than a single surface.
  • Items can get buried - less easy to find and remove.
  • More difficult to spot any possibly hazardous objects, such as glass or wire.
  • Mulch can make a mess on clothes
  • Will compact down over time, reducing protective capacity.
  • Will need periodic replenishment to maintain the depth.
  • Wood mulch and sand are likely to attract dogs and cats, and maybe other creatures, keen to make use of the "facilities". (Rubber mulch and gravel are generally safe from their unwelcome attentions.)

Non-Movable

A single surface is easier to maintain and keep clean, but costs far more than loose-fill. Usually not a DIY job, needs professional installation.

Non-Movable Surfacing: Points To Consider
  • Single surfaces are generally more expensive than loose-fill.
  • Needs to be professionally laid - DIY not recommended. This adds to the cost.
  • Long-lasting.
  • Stays in place and looks neat.
  • Unwanted objects easy to spot and remove.
  • Effective but expensive.
  • Rubber mats and tiles can be replaced individually. So a patch can be treated without affecting the whole area.

Here are the various surfacing options in more detail:

Sand

Sand under swings

Photo credit: Sharon Mollerus via Visual Hunt / CC BY

Sand is one of the cheapest playground surfaces available, so of course there are downsides. Shallow sand provides little support. You'll need an adequate amount in place - ideally to a depth of at least 12 inches.

All sand is not the same. If you go for this option, you definitely don't want builders sand. Be sure to specify "play sand", which is softer than other types and less likely to contain unwanted extras. It also gives kids an additional outlet to have fun and express their creativity.

Whatever type of sand you choose, though, it's not ideal as it loses any cushioning qualities when it gets wet or very cold. Unfortunately, neighborhood cats and dogs are attracted to sand as well, making it a less than ideal play area for children.

As if that isn't enough to put you off (!), sand travels easily - over any borders, on clothes and inside shoes. You're likely to find it a constant presence in your home.

If you like the idea of having sand for a play area, a separate, contained sand box, (that you can cover to keep out unwanted visitors) might be the best solution.

Pea Gravel

kid having fun with gravel

Photo credit: Manue@PrettyKiku via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

These are small rounded pebbles, with no sharp edges. See close-up image below. With pea gravel, you get a natural looking surface that's affordable.

However, pea gravel probably isn't the best choice for any areas used by very young children, though they may not agree! With its small size, it could pose a choking hazard, and it's all too easy to find its way into ears and noses. It's also too tempting to throw around.

pea gravel plus feet

Image Source

It doesn't require too much in the way of maintenance, apart from raking to keep it level, as it (obviously) doesn't decompose. But it's not the most shock absorbent material for a playground. Kids tend to get more scrapes and bruises on pea gravel than they would from wood chips or rubber mulch.

It's not ideal either if you have grass in your yard and use a lawnmower, as the gravel will stray into these areas and get in the way.

On the plus side, it doesn't attract animals...

Wood Mulch

wood mulch with weeds

Image Source

This material comes in many different versions. It's widely available as a landscaping material. This means it isn't always ideal for children, so it's best to check carefully before making a big purchase.

Some include bark and sharp twigs, which are better avoided. You also want to avoid any mulch containing wood that has been treated with chemical preservatives.

Wood mulch is relatively inexpensive and easy to put in place - within a border.

Regular maintenance is needed - raking to keep it level and free from debris. And to keep weeds at bay (see photo above). After all, this organic material is intended to be used to help plants flourish.

Like all loose-fill material, wood mulch tends to compress over time and will need replenishing. It will also gradually decompose (you might regard this as a good thing) - and when it gets damp, it can get moldy.

It can stick to clothes when it gets damp. Some people say it can discolor kids' clothes.

Natural mulch and wood chips offer better impact protection than pea gravel or sand because they are softer and not as dense. It tends to cost more than sand or gravel - less than rubber.

Prone to mold and attracts insects.

Can be a choking hazard for little children, and can be a source of splinters.

Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF)

EWF looks like wood chips but unlike these and other mulch products, which are designed for landscaping, EDW is manufactured specifically for use as a playground surface.

It costs more than regular wood mulch but it lasts longer, and has other advantages, making it possibly a more economical choice over time.

Only new inner wood is used for EWF - it contains no bark, twigs, leaves or recycled wood, and is free from chemical substances such as preservatives, that could be harmful to children.

Once it's been in place for a while and has settled a bit, the pieces knit together to form a springy layer that will be fine for strollers etc. Any foreign materials stay visible on the surface, they won't get buried, and are easy to remove by raking.

It's still susceptible to displacement, like any loose-fill material, so you'll need to top it up from time to time.

Unlike regular wood mulch, engineered wood fiber is not as prone to insect infestation. There's also no problem with splinters, as the EWF is less rigid than other wood.

As an organic material, it is susceptible to rot in damp conditions, so it may not be the best choice if you live in an area with high rainfall, though a proper drainage system can help a lot.

Rubber Mulch

Rubber mulch lasts longer than wood mulch but doesn't look so natural. It's heavier than wood mulch and chips, so less likely to blow about in the wind. Also, with rubber there's no risk of splinters.

It costs more than wood mulch and EWF, but less than poured-in-place and bonded rubber.

Rubber mulch, or shredded rubber, is primarily composed of used auto tires that have been ground up into small pieces.

All those tires that otherwise go to landfills across the country are being recycled. And what better way to recycle them than to use them as a safe playground surface? Well, that's fine - as long as there are no bits of wire or cord left in the mulch.

Rubber mulch helps minimize weed growth as it forms a protective barrier. It's also resistant to fungus and mold.

It also allows water to drain down to the soil below, unlike wood mulch which is more likely to absorb moisture.

Rubber mulch provides superb protection and shock absorption due to its built-in elasticity. It doesn't compress and compact in the same way as other loose-fill materials, though it still needs to be contained in a border and checked for displacement - especially in high-traffic areas such as around swings and slides. So some replenishment may be needed after a while.

It looks as if neat rubber mulch is the choice for under the playset in the the grounds of the White House (see pic below). Note the rubber mats in high-traffic spots beneath the swings and slide.

Rubber mulch surfacing at White House playground

By Rubber Mulch (Rubberecycle Mulch) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Just 6 inches of uncompressed rubber mulch provides fall protection up to 10 feet.

As it's loose fill, pieces can find their way into the house - either brought in by the kids, or attached to their shoes.

Rubber is much more durable than wood. It doesn't break down as quickly as natural wood-based products (in fact, it lasts up to 12 times longer). This can be regarded as both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on your viewpoint and circumstances. In most cases, you buy it just once and it serves its purpose throughout your young family’s growing years.

One potential problem with rubber mulch is that it may contain contaminants such as traces of harsh chemicals. It doesn’t appear to be a huge issue however - as  long as you choose a good-quality product - since the EPA has endorsed using recycled rubber for playgrounds.

You may possibly notice a strong rubber smell when it's first installed, or on those hot summer days. For anyone with a sensitive nose, you might want to avoid using rubber for this reason. A high-standard rubber mulch shouldn't smell or leave residue, though. So if you decide on rubber mulch, go for quality.

Be sure to check the size of the rubber pieces before purchasing. Some say the bigger chunks are a better choice than the shredded type, as the smaller shreds are more likely to stick to clothes and leave a residue.

Though a fairly recent entrant in the playground surface arena, rubber mulch is fast becoming a favorite due to its cushioning properties.

Poured Rubber

Coloruful poured rubber playground surfacing

Image Source

This is the most expensive playground safety surface option. Most often found in parks and schools. It's available in an array of colors and designs, but as it's right at the high end of the price chart, it's not going to fit into everyone's budget.

Poured in place rubber offers a durable, slip resistant finish. Granules (sometimes called crumb) from recycled tire rubber are mixed with a resin and poured in liquid form into a bordered area. Once it sets, it's ready to be used.

Poured rubber provides a high level of protection and a remarkably smooth surface that’s easy to clean and maintain. It also makes it accessible for strollers and wheelchairs.

Poured rubber covers the entire play area - without the need for any seams. It provides a softer fall, yet, it’s firm enough to last for years.

Poured rubber surfaces require little to no maintenance - just a sweep and a hose down from time to time. The surface is porous, allowing water to drain through, so no puddles after it's been raining, which means rain won't stop play (for longer than absolutely necessary).

Bonded Rubber Mulch

This is also called bound rubber mulch. It is similar to poured in rubber, except rubber mulch is used instead of granules so the pieces are larger.

It costs less than poured rubber, but has most of the same advantages (and disadvantages).

Rubber Tiles or Mats

Rubber tiles and mats are more expensive to purchase than loose fill, but usually cost a bit less than poured in place rubber or bonded rubber. However, rubber matting can be remarkably durable and effective as a playground surface for your yard. See what's available on Amazon here.

The individual rubber pieces are usually around 19in to 24in square and interlock to form a unified surface. These things are noticeably dense and heavy, but they also provide a terrific cushion. They won't freeze, and are unlikely to come adrift, even in extreme weather conditions.

Rubber tiles and mats provide stylish design options, with multiple colors and pattern possibilities. Unlike the loose-fill options, no containment border is necessary as these large mats/tiles fit together and stay in place. They're an ideal option for handicap accessibility and for strollers too.

Tiles and mats provide a stable base that won't get displaced through use. Even stormy weather is unlikely to cause any significant damage . Since the surface is smooth, it's easy to spot any discarded (and sometimes dangerous) items that can end up in your yard playground. It's also easy to sweep or hose down a rubber tile base.

As with any rubber product, tiles /mats are naturally resistant to fungus, mold, insects and rot. Eventually they will break down, just as any material exposed to bright sunshine and inclement weather does over time. But they last many times longer than most other options and will likely outlast the playset or swingset too. Some rubber tile products have warranties good for as much as 10 years.

One major advantage to using rubber tiles instead of poured rubber is that should one become damaged, it's easy to replace without requiring overhaul of the entire surface.

Rubber tiles and mats are not recommended as a do-it-yourself project. You're better off having these installed by pros. You don't want to leave any exposed edges that could be problematic.

Artificial Grass

Fake grass looks similar to real grass, but has many advantages over the natural thing.

The initial costs are more, but artificial turf requires far less maintenance. A regular hosing should remove dust and keep it looking good.

For more in-depth cleaning, a thorough sweeping with a stiff brush (check first that it has the right type of bristles to avoid damage) will remove any debris and fluff up the blades.

fake grass

I've seen some comments from dog owners mentioning difficulty removing the waft of urine from this surface - so if one (or more) of your family members sports four legs, a cold nose and a wagging tail, it's worth investigating this further before you make a final decision.

Artificial grass is also smooth enough for wheelchairs and strollers and of course this grass never needs to be cut! (Lawn mower, be gone!)


There you have it, a multitude of choices for your backyard playground surface. One thing you should be careful not to do is to use concrete, asphalt, standard gravel or real grass as your playground surface. These surfaces are just too hard to be deemed safe for children, should they fall.

Whatever material you choose, make sure you install it to a satisfactory depth, so it will cushion a fall from the highest point of the playset.

We all know that minor falls, tumbles, and bumping into one another is are all part of playing anywhere, not just on a play structure. But it's the more serious falls that we need to protect against. Putting a safety surface underneath should give you some peace of mind when you let your kids loose on their new playset.

Single rubber mats are a must for any surface

Whatever surface you ultimately choose, there's a place for single rubber mats - and that is in areas that get a lot of footfall. You can check them out on Amazon here.

These will 1) take the brunt of the wear and tear; 2) keep loose-fill material in place and stop it from scattering; 3) give an extra layer of cushioning.

Great for under swings where feet are always scuffing the ground as they pass. Put them at the end of the slide, and under the ladder and climbing wall too.

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