Rubber Mulch vs. Wood Mulch Playground: Which One Is Better?

Rubber Mulch vs. Wood Mulch Playground

As a mom of two, I’ve taken my boys to many a playground. Sometimes they come home with wood stuck to their socks. Other times, they have bits of rubber in their shoes.

I’ve often wondered about the mulch. Why do some playgrounds have wood while others have rubber? How do you choose which to use? What are the benefits of each? And is one better than the other?

Wood mulch is ground from the inner parts of trees, so it rarely causes splinters. While it’s cheaper to install initially, it must be changed annually. It’s slip-resistant and environmentally friendly.

Rubber mulch is made from recycled scrap rubber. Initially, it costs more to install. But because of its low maintenance and durability, it doesn’t need to be changed often, if at all.

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Mulch Materials

While it looks similar to landscaping mulch, wood mulch for playgrounds is much smaller—no more than two inches long. It’s ground from the inner parts of trees instead of the bark. This makes it smoother and less likely to cause splinters.

Many companies make wood playground mulch from mature trees that are located remotely. As such, these trees aren’t exposed to much human activity. So, they are unlikely to cause allergic reactions.

Rubber mulch is recycling at its finest. It’s created from scrap rubber, usually old tires, which are shredded into small pieces. Over 110 million tires are recycled every year, and some of them become mulch for your playground!

Fall Protection

Both wood and rubber mulch provides excellent absorption if children fall from playground equipment. However, rubber mulch proves to offer the best fall protection.

Rubber mulch can protect children from falls of 10-12 feet. And it takes less rubber mulch to absorb the impact. Only 6 inches of rubber mulch are required for a commercial playground, and 5 inches are required for a residential playground.

On the other hand, 9 inches of wood mulch are needed to protect children from falls of up to 7 feet.

Wood Mulch Maintenance

Between the two, wood mulch requires much more maintenance. Over time, the wood compacts, becoming a less absorbent surface. Although 9 inches is an acceptable amount, many experts suggest laying 12 inches to prolong the surface’s absorption.

Wood mulch is susceptible to mold and decay when exposed to the elements. As such, it needs to be replaced annually at the very least. It may need to be topped off even more often.

Like rubber mulch or pea gravel, wood mulch is a loose-fill playground surface. It has a tendency to get displaced as kids run and kick or in windy conditions. This requires the mulch to be consistently raked so it’s spread evenly, especially in high-impact areas like the swings or slide.

Because it doesn’t stay put very well, it’s worth noting that wood mulch tends to travel outside the playground parameters. Regular cleaning of the surrounding area may be necessary.

Rubber Mulch Maintenance

Compared to wood mulch, rubber mulch is a low-maintenance playground option. It remains unaffected by the weather, neither rotting nor compacting over time. Because of this, rubber mulch rarely needs to be replaced, if at all.

While it stays put in the wind, rubber mulch does get displaced as children play. Light raking is required to keep the surface even.

Apart from the raking, black remnants from the rubber mulch may be found on your children’s skin or clothes. This will obviously require additional cleaning.

Cost

Although it costs more upfront, rubber mulch is cheaper in the long run because it doesn’t need to be replaced like wood mulch.

Let’s assume you have a residential playground that’s 100 square feet. You will need a minimum of 5 inches of rubber mulch. Here is a comparison chart of different rubber mulch brands and their prices assuming the above scenario.

Brand Cubic Feet per Bag Price per Bag Bags Needed (based on 100 sq ft) Total Cost
Vigoro

(Home Depot)

0.8 $6.97 33.34 $232.38
Rubberific (Lowe’s) 0.8 $9.98 33.34 $332.73
NuScape

(Lowe’s)

0.8 $6.98 33.34 $232.38
Playsafer

(AAA State of Play)

1.55 $7.00 26.88 $188.16
Ground Smart (Walmart) 0.8 $5.97 33.34 $196.47

Wood mulch has a very low cost initially. However, each year, it needs to be replaced, which makes the overall cost higher.

For wood mulch, you need a minimum coverage of 9 inches. The chart below compares different brands of playground wood mulch assuming an area of 100 square feet.

Brand Cubic Feet/Yard per Bag Price per Bag Bags Needed (based on 100 sq ft) Total Cost
The Dirt Bag 1 cu yd $51.00 2.78 $141.78
Everglades Farm Equipment 2 cu ft $3.54 37.5 $132.75
Mr. Mulch 1 cu yd $35.00 2.78 $97.30
Swanson Playground Mulch

(Lowe’s)

2 cu ft $3.98 37.5 $149.25

Safety Concerns

While both have many advantages, wood and rubber mulch carry safety risks as well. Precautions should be taken when laying either type of mulch.

Flammability

We all know that wood is a flammable material. Rubber is also flammable, and it’s very difficult to extinguish once it’s on fire. Both wood and rubber mulch should be no less than 10 feet from any manmade fire, such as a fire pit or outdoor fireplace.

Choking Hazard

As with any type of loose-fill playground mulch, wood and rubber mulch pose a choking hazard for toddlers. It’s best to avoid either wood or rubber mulch if your playground is intended for very small children.

Toxicity

There is much dispute about the toxicity of rubber mulch. One source states the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) published a safety surfacing guideline. In it, they mentioned rubber mulch as an acceptable material for commercial playground surfaces.

Another source explains what the rubber may have been exposed to and what that does to health and safety. A study at Bucknell University shows that rubber mulch made from tires includes an element called rubber leachate. Because of its mineral content, rubber leachate is highly toxic.

Additionally, if the rubber was exposed to toxic materials such as lead, the rubber will absorb and release it. In high concentrations, rubber leachates can be harmful to human health. Known side effects range from skin and eye irritation to organ damage and even death. Other side effects of long-term exposure include neurological damage and cancer.

For every source that claims toxicity, another says it’s perfectly safe.

Visual Aesthetic

Wood is a natural-looking option for your playground mulch. It can be matched to any existing landscaping and comes in a variety of colors. The most popular colors for wood mulch are brown, black, and red.

While rubber mulch is available in earth tones, it does not look as natural as wood mulch. It, too, comes in a variety of colors, which can make the space feel fun and whimsical.

Accessibility

Because wood mulch tends to compact and harden, it is an accessible material for wheelchairs and strollers. Rubber, on the other hand, is a difficult material to maneuver in, especially where wheels are concerned.

Related Questions

We’ve discussed in great detail rubber and wood mulch as playground surfacing options. But you may still have more questions. Here are some things other people wondered about wood and rubber mulch.

Do you need landscape fabric under rubber mulch?

It might be a good idea to put landscape fabric under a bed of rubber mulch. Using landscape fabric can prolong the need for replacement. Rubber mulch has a tendency to sink into the soil. This will introduce mud into the area. And you may have to add a top layer every so often to keep the 5-6 inches required.

Does rubber mulch attract mice?

Unfortunately, both wood and rubber mulch attract mice. It gives them a safe and secure place to burrow. Cedar mulch can be a good mouse deterrent because of the aroma, however, it doesn’t stop rabbits from seeking its shelter.

Can mulch attract bugs?

Wood mulch can attract bugs such as carpenter ants, earwigs, roaches, and termites. Unless the mulch is right up against your house, the chance of these bugs causing damage is minimal. But it’s not impossible. It might be worth it to set traps around the perimeter of your house as a precaution.

On the other hand, rubber mulch is less likely to attract bugs, though it still might harbor other pests.

Does rubber mulch get hot in the sun?

This is a myth. Rubber mulch doesn’t get any hotter than other playground surfaces. In fact, because rubber doesn’t conduct heat, the mulch beneath the surface is more likely to be cooler.

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Summing It Up

Both rubber and wood mulch are acceptable playground surface materials. And while they both offer fall protection, rubber mulch is the more absorbent surface.

The benefits of wood mulch include its initial cost and eco-friendliness. However, it requires significant maintenance and poses a few safety concerns.

The benefits of rubber mulch include its little-to-no maintenance, which makes it cheaper in the long run. Rubber mulch seems to have a few more downfalls, though. While both types of mulch are highly flammable and prove to be choking hazards, rubber mulch has conflicting evidence of toxicity. That alone may be a deterrent for some people.

Still, the pros and cons of rubber vs. wood mulch for playgrounds are almost neck and neck. It’s ultimately your decision as to which is right for your playground.

Brigid Levi

Brigid Levi is a wife, mother, and freelance writer who enjoys a good DIY project and creating beautiful spaces within her home. From cleaning and organization hacks to home decor ideas, she loves helping people in their quest to turn a house into a home. Her hobbies include pretending to be Joanna Gaines while updating her home with her husband and performing in local theater productions.

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