I have been in a gradual process of installing a play set in our backyard. By “gradual”, I mean the risk of my kids outgrowing the set before completion was what finally got me to wrap it up. That, and a pandemic. One key ingredient for any playground or play structure is what to use on the ground. I debated just about every material feasible, and ultimately settled on rubber mulch. In this video and article, we’ll cover the different ground cover options we considered, along with our experience installing a pallet full of the rubber mulch that RubberMulch.com sent to us to install and test for this project. Let’s jump in – feet first!
Initially, my plan was to use walk-on bark (a type of mulch we use elsewhere in our yard). By hindsight, that would have been a disaster. One of my kid’s schools had a playground with “playground” mulch on it. My daughter was constantly bringing home shoes filled with enough wood chips to mulch our yard several times over. These “kid-friendly” playground wood chips occasionally produced splinters. Nothing says playground fun like splinters, right?! My search for a playground mulch alternative, other than the forest-grade weeds that took over the play area, led me to discover rubber mulch playgrounds.
Pros and Cons of Rubber Mulch Playgrounds
Like any playground surface, there are pros and cons to rubber mulch playgrounds. Our experience with it found a lot more pros than cons. Before I dive into how to install rubber mulch playground material, I will summarize both pros and cons for a fair look at whether or not you want it for your playground project.
Advantages of Rubber Mulch for Playgrounds
Short of installing a commercial-grade cushioned playground surface, it’s hard to imagine a safer option that a nice, thick layer of rubber mulch. The mulch has a cushiony, springy feel underfoot and is actually fun to run around and jump on. Should you, or one of your little ones take a tumble, the rubber mulch should provide a relatively cushioned landing. RubberMulch.com recommends at least 3″ to provide some fall protection in most residential uses. 6″ is recommended for commercial or school usage. Also, no splinters! For a somewhat creepy animated look at playground safety, check out:
Assuming you follow the how to install rubber mulch playground material tips below, this material provides excellent drainage. While natural materials like mulch can soak up a lot of water, rubber mulch retains very little. With a proper sloped grade and/or drains, you can bounce around without getting your galoshes very wet, even after heavy rain.
Non-compressing / Non Degrading
Unless your children weigh enough to deform solid rubber, this material doesn’t compress or degrade over time. Natural materials like mulch can start off as a seemingly thick, fluffy layer, only to compress down and biodegrade to nothing after a season or two. Rubber mulch might compact slightly as the chunks settle, but there was little change in the overall thickness of our installation over time. The rubber mulch also does not degrade. This means you only have to buy and install it once and you should be good to go indefinitely.
Numerous Color Options
Natural mulches have been died to different colors for years. Rubber mulch is no exception. You select from several color options. We went with a natural looking dark brown on ours which makes it hard to distinguish from natural materials. If you don’t care about how natural it looks, might I recommend blue, which is also great for any ocean-themed playground designs you have in mind. RubberMulch.com offers a 12 year color guarantee as well.
That probably isn’t the exact verbiage the company wanted, but I think it’s accurate. Last year, our neighbors decided to adopt what seems like a half dozen cats. I had no problem with that until the cats decided our backyard was their ideal bathroom. This litter of feline defecators sun bathe in their own yard and then hop the wall to poop and pee in our yard. Longtime Home Fixated readers might recall, I don’t take kindly to animals pooping in my yard. Happily, our playground has been the one safe zone from this invasion of furry poopers. The chunky rubber just doesn’t appeal to them like our powdery soil in the rest of the yard. Stay tuned for a future article on how to keep cats from pooping in your yard (as soon as I figure out a plan that doesn’t involve rubber mulching our entire yard).
Termite and Pest Resistant
Termites are pretty common here in San Diego. So are spiders, which one of my daughters is also terrified of. She’s also terrified of butterflies – the rubber mulch can’t help us there. I was a little worried the mulch would turn into a haven for spiders. While spiders have still enjoyed taking up residence on our play structure, I have yet to see them setting up shop in the mulch. And, since termites don’t find rubber delicious, we’re not welcoming any additional termites to the neighborhood.
I was going to say wind-proof, but then I imagined someone in tornado alley reminding me that mother nature can lift cars into the air. For most non-tornadic winds, rubber mulch isn’t likely to blow away. Thanks to its density, it’s also less likely to get kicked or carried away to neighboring areas. In short, it’s easier to keep contained.
Last, but not least, it is fun to jump on! For a playground material, that is a pretty important advantage. Kids rarely get excited about jumping up and down on concrete. Actually, that’s no true. But if they had the option of concrete, wood chips or rubber mulch, the choice would be clear.
Disadvantages of Rubber Mulch
Does Not Degrade
One of rubber mulch’s advantages can also be a disadvantage for some. If you’re looking for a short-term playground, when it’s time to dismantle it, you will need to find a new home for the rubber mulch. It’s not something that will just biodegrade.
Removal Can Be Tricky
If you follow our advice on how to install rubber mulch playground material below and install a weed barrier, you should be good. However, if you just toss the rubber mulch on dirt, removal will involve separating it from the surrounding dirt.
If you prefer only natural materials in your garden (as I do), this one is a bit of a barrier. I took solace in the fact that rubber mulch is both recycled and non-toxic according to its makers.
More Expensive Short Term
Compared to dumping a bunch of wood chips, rubber mulch will like be a more costly option up front. However, if you’re regularly replacing a natural material that blows, floats or degrades away, the natural savings are more iffy.
How Much Rubber Mulch Do You Need
RubberMulch.com has a handy calculator on each Playsafer rubber mulch order page. You simply enter the dimension of the your playground space and then select the thickness you plan to install. This graphic from their site gives you an idea of what depth you may want to target:
Each Playsafer rubber mulch bag is 40 pounds and 1.55 cubic feet. Roughly one full pallet (2000 lbs) will fill a 300 square foot area about 3 inches deep. Our install was a bit under 300 square feet, but we did a full pallet and just went a bit deeper than three inches on our installation.
How to Install Rubber Mulch Playground Material
Installing rubber mulch for your playground is very do-able DIY project. Like any good DIY project, this one just takes a suitable playground area and a little prep work. The actual rubber mulch playground material is very easy to work with. One pro tip though, make sure you get your pallet dropped off as close to your playground area as possible.
Define Your Area
If you are starting from scratch like we were, you’ll need to define your play area (and install a play structure). Do not procrastinate as long as I did, OK? Our area was defined be walls on three sides and then it was up to us where to define the edge of the play area.
Grade for Proper Drainage
Once you have your area defined, you’ll want to make sure it’s graded for proper drainage. This usually means consistent slope in one direction to help water shed from the area. If you are unable to slope the area for drainage away, you may need one or more drains. In our play area we used a combination of slope, and some landscape surface drains to capture water as it goes to the edges of the play area. Drains are likely overkill for most playgrounds. Just make sure you have smooth consistent slope with no low spots for water to pool in or your rubber mulch playground will morph into a rubber mulch soup.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Unless you want your precious rubber mulch getting scattered around your entire property, you’ll want to make sure you have some sort of containment strategy. The safest bet is to go with a Playsafer Rubber Curb, which interlock at 3.75 feet and run $25 a piece.
For our playground, I had some bender board edging left over from a landscaping project and decided to put it to use. It seems like an option more likely to create a tripping hazard though. At least 50% of the time any trips will be into some nice, soft rubber mulch!
Put Down Weed Barrier
Considering our plot of land for the playground was the site of some of the most prolific and relentless weeds in the region, installing a weed barrier was a must. Even if you do not have a major weed problem, a weed barrier fabric can help keep your playground and freshly-installed rubber mulch clean and tidy. Pick a high quality weed barrier fabric and make sure you have fabric staples to help you secure it to the soil. This is a pretty quick process. In my case, it was especially enjoyable as I savored the idea of NEVER weeding this area again!
Distribute the Rubber Mulch
This is definitely the fun part! With your area defined, graded, weed-barried, and contained, it is time to get dumping! I hauled the bags over and slit them open roughly over the area I wanted to cover. My young assistant helped rake the piles out to create a more even distribution of rubber mulch. In no time we had the play area filled and ready for fun!
Rubber Mulch Installation Timelapse
Although the process is pretty fast to begin with, check out the timelapse below to see a speedy look at our installation.
Despite some skepticism about a “non-natural” product, I am very happy with my decision to use rubber mulch for our playground material. It had a very mild odor when first installed, but that went away very quickly and after a while no odor at all was noticeable. The product is maintenance free and I do not need to worry about having to replenish it. Most importantly, my kids love it, and reassuring to know it provides some extra safety if things get too crazy out there. If you are looking to install a playground for your kids, I highly recommend you consider installing rubber mulch for your surface.
Rubber Mulch Playground Before and After
Rubber Mulch Costs
At the time of this article, RubberMulch.com’s pricing was as follows:
$40 40 pound bag.
$319 400 pound pallet.
$419 1000 pound pallet.
$699 2000 pound pallet.