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Best Playground Surface: Loose Fill vs. Rubber Mats

Best Playground Surface: Mulch Loose Fill vs. Mats

Whether you are planning to build a playground at a home, school or park, the play surface should be of utmost concern. Keeping children safe is absolutely essential. The right playground surface will protect and pad kids from spills and falls, while the wrong surface can cause serious damage and harm.

In addition to safety, you will also want to make sure that the playground remains looking nice season after season. The safer it is and the nicer it looks, the more kiddos and their families will want to come to play. It would be ideal to achieve all of that without breaking the bank either.

As most playground users know, people try to achieve all of the above benefits with a number of different playground surfaces. Two of the most popular playground surfaces are mulch and rubber mats or tiles. It is important to be familiar with the pros and cons of each.


Mulch can come in many forms, including wood chips and rubber mulch, and is generally an inexpensive form of playground surfacing.

Wood Mulch

Wood chips, shredded bark mulch, and engineered wood fibers are environmentally friendly, biodegradable and renewable natural resources. They'll also give your playground a natural look and feel.

Out of the three, wood chips provide the most fall protection. Wood chips with uncompressed depths between six and twelve inches will offer fall height protection between seven to eleven feet, accordingly. Compression does not greatly affect the fall height protection of wood chips, but does lessen the protective benefits of both shredded bark mulch and engineered wood fibers. All forms of wood mulch perform better for fall protection than hard particles of loose fill, such as sand or pea gravel.

Rubber Mulch For Playground Pros and Cons

Typically, rubber mulch is made from recycled tires. Instead of going and sitting in landfills, tires are ground up and resourced as rubber mulch, which makes it an environmentally friendly choice. Rubber mulch hinders the growth of fungus, plants, and weeds. The elasticity of rubber mulch is excellent for shock absorption and is far superior to wood or bark mulch in breaking falls, providing 10-12 feet of fall height protection with an uncompressed depth of 6 inches. This material will also last up to 12 times longer than wood mulch, decreasing the maintenance and replacement costs.

Many people are wary of rubber mulch because of the potential of toxicity. Recycled tire mulch can contain trace chemicals from the manufacturing process and use on vehicles. With that being said, the Environment Protection Agency has endorsed the use of recycled rubber for playgrounds after research determined the materials not to be harmful. Those findings have been backed by multiple other studies.

Downside to Mulch

One of the major negatives to both rubber and wood mulch is the amount of careful maintenance they both require. Mulch needs a retaining barrier in order to keep the fill from spreading away from the play area. Even with a barrier, loose fill will disappear over time (in pockets, shoes, and spillage over the barriers) and will need constant additions or replacements. Wood mulch in particular needs regular addition as it naturally breaks down over time.

In that vein, maintaining an even thickness of loose fill surfaces is quite challenging. The thickness of loose fill surfaces can and will vary with use as it will be displaced from the impact of children coming off slides, swinging on swings, falling, etc. It can also be affected by wind, heavy rains or other extreme environmental conditions.

Dangerous, sharp objects can hide in loose fill and end up causing harm to unsuspecting playground users. Further, loose fill is the less sanitary option. Damp wood mulch can develop fungus and mildew, and there is really no way good way to clean loose fill in general. Wood mulch can also contribute to scrapes and splinters, especially when dry.

Mats and Tiles

Although the upfront price of rubber playground mats and tiles, they tend to be a better investment than loose fill. Rubber playground mats and tiles are durable, easy to create designs or patterns and easy to maintain. They will not need any form of containment and are more handicap accessible than loose fill playground surfaces. Unlike loose fill, rubber playground mats do not require long-term maintenance, and they pose less health and safety risks. The material will not shift or displace and any potential danger from sharp objects will be exposed on the flat surface. Mold, fungus, and insects are not an issue with rubber playground flooring.

Should a rubber mat playground surface need to be cleaned, it can be easily done with a broom or garden hose. Like rubber mulch, rubber playground tiles and mats are also made of recycled tires and have been known to last for decades. Some even feature warranties of 10 years or more.

In the event that a playground mat or tile becomes seriously damaged, it is simple to replace just the damaged unit without replacing the entire playground surface.

As for fall height, protection you'll want to check with each manufacturer as they can vary, depending on design and thickness. Gym Rubber by Greatmats offers rubber playground mats with a fall height rating from anywhere between four inches to ten feet.

Proper installation is critical when using rubber mats. Improper installation can result in tripping hazards and a decreased lifespan of your playground surface. Rubber mats and tiles often connect together with a tight-fitting interlocking seam that minimizes seams and displacement. Rubber playground tiles are also heavy and will not float or freeze. Ultimately, they are extremely resilient even in extreme weather conditions.

Keep Learning More

As you can see, not all playground surfaces are created equal. When choosing your surface, make sure to consider how heavily the space will be used, the environment in which it will be installed, upfront cost, maintenance, repair and replacement costs. The more informed you are, the more prepared you will be to provide a safe, comfortable and fun positive to all future playground users. By reading this, you're on the right path to protecting both your children and your pocketbook. To learn even more, check out Gym Rubbers' Customer Guide, where you can find more articles, blogs and how-to videos relating to playground flooring.
For more on this topic please review our Playground Rubber Safety Surfaces product page.