Everything (We Think) You Need to Know About Rubber Mulch and Playgrounds
AKA: “Rubber Mulch for Beginners”
So you’re building a playground.
You’re at the part of the planning process when you start to consider your playground protective fall safety surface (aka, the ground). Great! We’ve been at this point dozens of times. We understand the headache that can ensue when trying to make the best decision.
Do you go with wood chips? The engineered play bark route? Sand? Another option could be a pour in place rubber surface or interlocking rubber tiles. Concrete? (never!) How about old fashioned grass?
In this article we discuss Rubber Mulch, and why we recommend it for playground surfacing. Within this page, you can expect to learn:
- What rubber mulch is (and how it’s different than gardening mulch).
- Why rubber mulch is safer than other types of playground surfacing.
- Its pros and cons.
- Purchasing rubber mulch: How much does it cost? Where to buy it? How to calculate how much you need and some available companies where you can purchase it from.
*NOTE: Unlike other sites, we are not sponsored by any rubber mulch companies or services. We simply want to inform others about what we know on the subject and give an unbiased perspective by a group of people who specialize in playground design and construction, hopefully making someone’s life a little bit easier in the process. Have a question we haven’t covered? Think this article needs an update? Send us an email and we’ll be happy to hear from you.
With that being said…
1. What exactly IS rubber mulch? What is all the hype about?
Rubber mulch, in its most basic form, is a loose-fill playground protective surface system. Loose-fill? Let’s break that down real quick. Protective safety systems can be categorized into two main categories, unitary systems and loose-fill systems. Unitary means one solid surface. For example, pour in place rubber surface, interlocking rubber tiles or synthetic turf.
Note: synthetic turf alone is not a sufficient play surface as turf requires an additional fall safety pad below, (more on that later). Loose-fill material is just as it sounds; any material that is made up of many loose components…filled into an area. Some examples of loose-fill materials include rubber mulch, engineered play bark, or sand.
So back to rubber mulch; the rubber is basically a shredded rubber that is intended to look like wood chips, and primarily used as a bouncy, long-lasting, safer surfacing material that can withstand harsh weather conditions and countless hours of children running around on it. Perhaps you’ve seen it before: that soft, bouncy surface is used in playgrounds all over the world. It’s popular for good reason.
“CAN I USE BARK IN MY PLAYGROUND LIKE I SEE IN A LANDSCAPE PLANTER?”
Short answer…NO! Long answer…STILL NO!
“CAN I GRIND UP SOME OLD TIRES I HAVE IN MY YARD TO FILL MY PLAYGROUND?”
When researching or purchasing rubber mulch you need to know that there are typically two major types of rubber: virgin rubber and recycled rubber.
Virgin rubber is a high quality virgin polymer, or rubber that is specifically made for an application and has never been used before in a different application. The second major type is a recycled rubber typically made from rubber that has been used before in a different application (I.E. rubber tires or even old shoes).
The science behind these two rubbers can be found by researching Thermoplastic Vulcanised Rubber (TPV) or Styrene Butadiene Rubber (SBR) but we won’t discuss the science of rubber in this article (you’re welcome).
To answer the question, “can I use recycled tires as a rubber mulch?” Follow these two simple guidelines and you can provide a great, safe playground surface.
- Rubber mulch is perfectly safe and a great option for any playground surface but make sure that the rubber mulch is free of any contaminants such as wire, metal, fiber, plastics, wood or any other by product of a recycled rubber. RESEARCH IS KEY, when choosing a rubber mulch. Make sure the rubber mulch is thoroughly clean and free of any other debris.
- When purchasing or researching rubber mulch look for the words “IPEMA” or “ASTM” as all playground surfaces must comply with universal standards that conform to strict regulations. We’ll talk more on this subject in another article but keep an eye out for these key terms as legitimate and professional suppliers for rubber mulch all comply with these standards.
CAN I USE RUBBER MULCH IN A LANDSCAPE PLANTER OR AS A GARDENING MULCH?
Technically, you can use anything in a landscape as there are no regulations that define what can or can not be used, however, we would advise that you DO NOT USE rubber mulch as a gardening or landscape mulch. There are many other organic mulches or options that provide a wealth of benefits that rubber mulch can’t provide. Namely, nutrition for your soil. Rubber obviously doesn’t do much for plants. (But it’ll prevent a concussion or two!) Consult your local nursery for any help with gardening or landscaping mulches.
That said, we’re a playground information website, and for playgrounds, rubber mulch is the perfect companion to your project. Kids around the world have been playing on rubber mulch playgrounds with great safety and fewer injuries for years. If you’re in the designing phase of a new playground construction build, we would recommend rubber mulch for most applications!
On top of the safety benefits, rubber mulch lasts for a very long time, is incredibly easy to maintain, and you’ll never have to worry about weeds or bugs infiltrating a playground that is meant to be an enjoyable, care free place for kids to play.
2. Is Rubber Mulch Really Safer?
The short answer…yes, rubber mulch is incredibly safe.
The longer explanation is that rubber mulch is extremely safe as long as it is clean from any contaminants (wire, metal, etc.) and certified to conform to the standard regulations that define playground safety. It’s certified non-toxic, fire resistant (not fire proof, we should add. Don’t put this near your barbecue!), and wild animals find the rubber naturally unappealing.
This means that if you live in an area where animals frequently come out to munch on your wildlife, potentially threatening your children, this will be much less likely to happen due to the fact that animals won’t be interested in coming to check out the rubber flooring structure (this happens more than you’d think).
The number one cause of playground related injuries is from children falling off the structures and is also known as impact injuries. The main reason that playgrounds use rubber mulch so frequently is that its bouncy, spongy nature makes it significantly easier to land on than concrete or even the hard, natural ground. Even playgrounds using sand as a surface come with their own set of risks.
HOWEVER, just because rubber is bouncy or spongy does that make is safe for playground use. We will dive into the local standards in another article but when selecting a rubber mulch, you, the owner, need to research the correct type, depth, and application for rubber mulch. All playgrounds are different but every playground is defined by the maximum fall height and the rubber mulch you select needs to be certified and tested to provide adequate shock absorbing qualities that will provide or exceed your safety needs. Without getting into the definitions just keep in mind there are ASTM and IPEMA standards that all apply to playground rubber mulch. Make sure the type of rubber mulch, the depth, and the application all provide a safety rating that will exceed your playground fall height.
Have questions about playground fall heights? Have questions what type of rubber to use and how much? Send us an email and we’ll help you get on the right track.
Worth noting: if you’re wondering how thick of a rubber mulch surface you’ll be needing. The typical rule of thumb is that a 6 inch depth of rubber mulch will cover a 10 foot maximum fall height. The average fall height for the majority of residential and commercial play structures is roughly between 4 feet and 8 feet, so if you install a 6 inch depth you’ll be exceeding your fall height which is always a good thing. Better to play it safe than try to cut corners and build an unsafe playground.
3. The Pros and Cons of Rubber Mulch in Your Playground
(and some alternatives, just in case)
Generally, we recommend the use of rubber mulch for just about any playground build. But as a wise person (probably) once said, “not all playgrounds are built equal”. Yes, rubber mulch surfacing is safer, easy to install, pays for itself over the course of its lifetime with no need to replace it over and over again.
Have you ever seen a wood-chipped playground the day after a windstorm? The costs add up – not to mention the inconvenience of having someone go out there and clean the place up. It’s also great to have the ability to choose your favorite color for your surfacing. Want to purchase black rubber mulch, for example? How about blue surfacing to match a school’s colors? With rubber mulch, the sky’s the limit with your design potential.
PROS of Rubber Mulch
- It requires minimal maintenance compared to other playground surface products (I.E. Play Bark).
- It does not attract certain pests that can be found with other surface products (I.E. Sand…Is your playground located in a residential area with neighboring cats? You have now possibly designed the book of world records largest litter box). Not to mention mites, fleas, and other insects that love to call sand home.
- Exceptional drainage qualities. Rubber mulch is extremely permeable as long as you have proper sub-surface drainage.
- It is less affected by wind or landscape blowers.
- It is resistant to breakdown over time. Yes rubber mulch will breakdown over time however compared to its counterparts, Play Bark or Sand it is more resistant to breakdown or compaction. Play Bark will breakdown much more quickly and become more of a fine material and Sand will compact over time creating a hardpan surface that reduces its ability to absorb shock from impact injuries…and blow away at an irritatingly high rate.
I’m sure you can Google 100 website and find more PROS for rubber mulch but this is a good list to get you started. If you have any more questions regarding rubber mulch send us a quick email and we’ll help answer any questions.
Cons of Rubber Mulch
yes, there are always cons when discussing any subject:
- On extremely hot days (over 90 degrees), it has been reported that the playground can begin to smell like burning rubber. Makes sense, but in our opinion you shouldn’t be playing on a playground on 90-100 degree days anyways! Get back inside, clean your room and stay hydrated! The least of your worries will be the playground surface on a hot day. Have you ever sat on a metal slide in 100 degree weather? That’s another huge safety concern (gives me an idea for another article. Got any other playground safety questions you’d like me to address?)
- It has a higher initial cost compared to other surfacing products. (Again, it lasts longer and we’d argue it pays for itself over the course of its lifetime.)
- The color will fade over time due to the sun exposure. If you live in Arizona shade is a must! We’ll talk more on playground shade at a later date though.
- Flammability is a concern and if you think fire is an absurd concept in a playground I can show you pictures of how devious children can be. I have replaced many a playground due to fire damage…How you say? It takes one child who is lacking supervision to bring Dad’s BBQ lighter fluid and another who stole Mom’s lighter…
- It can have a certain toxicity that can leach into the soil however researching the proper rubber mulch can help decrease those properties.
- Children can ingest rubber mulch. Children can ingest Play Bark and Sand but I would rather have my child eating something organic versus a rubber product. Supervision is important, people!
- Rubber mulch is created using chemical process so there are a plethora of chemicals found in rubber mulch and again, this is where researching the product is key to selecting the right rubber mulch for your playground.
Again, I’m sure you can google 100 website and find more cons about using rubber mulch but this is a good list to get you started. If you have any more questions regarding rubber mulch send us an email and we’ll help answer any questions.
People concerned with the fertility of the soil below their playgrounds may also be alarmed to find that rubber mulch is, by its very nature, toxic over time. This means that natural playground surfaces leech into the ground below it, contaminating the ground. For long term sustainability (think one day you’d like that area to be a garden after the kids grow up and move out? It might be a good idea to invest in wood chips instead.) For more commercial playgrounds, schoolyards, or areas you’re certain you won’t be turning into a garden one day, we believe that the benefits of using rubber mulch for your playground design far outweigh the cons, and have no problem recommending it to even our closest friends and family members.
One (big) word of caution:
We will re-iterate that a wise man (probably) once said, but “not all playgrounds are built equal”.
We do NOT recommend rubber mulch for playgrounds that serve child care centers with children aged 6-23 months or similar age.
We don’t want small children ingesting rubber mulch and the younger the child the higher the chance we have of them putting things in their mouth that shouldn’t be there.
4. Buying Rubber Mulch
How much does it cost, where to buy it, how much it costs per yard, in bulk, and which companies are best to purchase it from.
It’s worth reminding yourself that despite the more costly initial investment, the purchase (like many high-quality items) is offset by the fact it requires less maintenance and almost never needs replacing compared to organic surfaces that require regular upkeep, so you will likely even save money in the long run.
We can’t stress enough…RESEARCH…RESEARCH…RESEARCH. Research the rubber product before you buy it. Look for the words “IPEMA certified” or conforms to “ASTM” standards (there are a few different standards so just look for ASTM as a starting point). Make sure the rubber mulch is free of contaminants, meets your fall rating for fall protection, proper depth for fall protection, conforms to ASTM toxicity and lead content, conforms to particle size distribution, and is lacking of all metal or wire content.
For the residential client, the best places that we’ve found to purchase rubber mulch in bulk for your construction site have been Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Costco. In general, the lowest prices we’ve found have been through these bigger chains. The good news is that there is a high probability most Americans live near one of these stores already.
For the commercial client, purchasing the rubber mulch in bulk is a much more viable option. There are many suppliers out there that sell rubber mulch by the bag or in bulk by the ton. Each rubber mulch product is sold in different sizes so make sure you have the done the correct calculations for your volume needed and have the suppliers quote you those amounts.
In the end, if you found this page because you were looking to find answers related to rubber mulch and playgrounds, we hope we’ve given you a good foundational place to start. If you’re still looking for answers to any question playground-related (rubber mulch or not), we’d love to hear from you and do our best to give you a no-nonsense, straight to the point answer. Contact us anytime by emailing Hello@PlaygroundParenting.com.
And good luck with your playground!