As parents, safety for our kids is always a top priority. It can be overwhelming to think of all the different things we have to worry about for our kids’ safety, especially when it comes to rigorous play outside.
First, we have to make sure that the equipment is free of hazards, including extreme temperatures. Then we have to make sure the kids’ shoes are tied. Is the fence closed? Is the weather too hot? Did they rub off all their sunscreen?
What about the material under the swing set? Should we be worried about that too?
Actually, not all swing sets need to be centered on specialized materials for safety; many are placed on grass. However, we can’t deny that a cushioning material has a certain appeal both for aesthetic and added safety reasons.
In this article, we will discuss the best and safest materials to put under your swing set so that your kids can have a blast and you can rest easy.
What Are the Most Common Playground Materials?
Several different kinds of playset surfaces can accommodate swing set use and placement. Each one has its own pros and cons, and it is up to you to decide which is the best for you and your children to use or whether you even want one at all.
The top seven most common materials include:
- Pea gravel
- Bark mulch or wood chips
- Engineered wood fiber
- Crumb rubber
The materials listed above fall into two surfacing options for playgrounds and swing sets: unitary and loose-fill materials.
Unitary materials are large or single rubber pieces that are held in place by a binder that, when cured, form one solid shock-absorbing surface. The materials that fall into this category include rubber mats, rubber tiles, and pour-in-place material.
Loose-fill materials include sand, gravel, mulch, wood fiber, or crumb rubber. These materials must be contained within a playground border and require a minimum fill-depth in order to be considered safe.
Other precautions that must be taken include regular maintenance and a good drainage system to avoid pockets of packed material or standing water after bad weather.
Natural and Artificial
These materials also fall into two visually appealing categories: natural and artificial. The natural materials may not be made entirely of natural materials, but they do look more organic than their counterparts.
Natural materials include sand, gravel, wood chips, and wood fiber. These blend into the natural surroundings and add to the natural aesthetic of the play area.
Artificial materials, on the other hand, include crumb rubber, tiles, and poured-in-place surface. While these materials aren’t exactly “natural,” they do have their own appeal. They come in a variety of colors to fit any theme that you want for your swing set or play area. This can create a more eye-catching swing set that can keep it exciting.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Each Material?
Below is a brief list of each pro and con that the common materials have.
Sand is a great material to start with. Overall, it is inexpensive, easy to install, provides good impact absorption, and supports very little microbial growth.
Because of its affordability and ease of installation, sand is relatively easy to maintain. Replacement maintenance is only required on a yearly basis, and all you will need to do is replace a few inches of sand on the old material.
Unfortunately, there are several cons to sand as well. Young children often choose to eat sand the minute their adult’s back is turned, and it can easily be tracked inside, much like the glitter of nature.
Additionally, it can hide insects and other pests. Because of this last point, regular inspection maintenance is required. Not only does sand hide pests well, but it also hides foreign objects (including animal litter) that can be hazardous. Sand will make sure that you are doing a lot of raking.
Pea gravel is inexpensive and easy to install. It provides excellent impact absorption for falls and resists microbial growth. Because of the gravel’s size, insects and pests tend to avoid it, and it drains better than sand.
Its larger size also means you can use less material to fill up just as much space as sand. Replacement maintenance is still manageable as all you need to do is check that its fill-depth is still the appropriate height.
Cons for pea gravel are relatively similar to those of sand, however. Young children easily consume it, and its size makes it easy to place in open orifices such as the nose, mouth, and ears. While it tends to be less attractive to pests, gravel can still hide the few who wander in, and it’s because of this that makes constant inspection maintenance a must.
Bark Mulch/Wood Chips
Like its previous counterparts on this list, wood chips are easy to install and relatively inexpensive. They do provide great impact absorption, which is a huge benefit, and they have a pleasing natural aesthetic.
That is where the pros end, though. The cons list is significantly longer. Wood chips are still easily consumed by young children and are easy to place in the mouth, nose, and ears.
Because it is wood, it is attractive to insects and pests (hello termites) and requires constant inspection maintenance to avoid foreign objects. Wood chips are also notorious for microbial growth when they are wet, so it may be best to avoid this material if you live in a consistently wet area.
Engineered Wood Fiber
Like the other loose-fit materials, the engineered wood fiber is easy to install and provides good impact absorption. It also stays in place much better than other loose-fill materials, meaning replacement maintenance will be even easier than other options.
This material is also made specifically for playgrounds. It’s engineered to have large pieces and rounded corners to be safer than regular wood chips.
Because engineered wood fiber is still wood, it also has several of the cons that wood chips do. The wood fiber can still hide insects and other pests well, and the wood fiber will begin to grow mold if it constantly stays wet enough.
Crumb rubber is lacking in the pros category. It is simple to install, just like the other loose-fit materials, and it provides the best impact absorption.
Unfortunately, that is where the pro ends.
Despite the lack of pros, the list of cons is also a surprisingly short list. Like the other loose-fitting materials, the small pieces are easily consumed by young children, and they are easily tracked inside in shoes, socks, and clothing.
Note that crumb rubber is made out of recycled tires. While this is a great way to reduce, reuse, and recycle, tires can contain black carbon, a carcinogenic material, and they can emit volatile organic compounds, especially in the summer heat.
Rubber tiles are an excellent unitary material choice. It provides superb impact and shock absorption compared to other loose-fitting materials. Because it is a series of large pieces bonded together, it also offers consistent impact absorption, which is ideal for long-term use. Regular maintenance is inexpensive, and rubber tiles do not look like attractive playgrounds to bugs and other pests.
While the list of cons may be short for rubber tiles, the costs are high, and these tiles usually require professional setup. It is also important to note that to keep maintenance costs down and the life of the product up, rubber tiles need to be swept and cleaned regularly. (Sounds like a wonderful opportunity to discuss the importance of chores with the kiddos.)
Poured-in-place materials are typically made out of rubber which provides consistent and powerful impact and shock absorption. Because of its unitary surface, animals and bugs cannot use it for nesting, which helps decrease maintenance. Because this material installs in a snap (relatively), it can also be easily repaired.
Like rubber tiles, because of the nature of installing poured-in-place materials, it will require professionals for set-up.
Materials To Avoid
Avoid hard surfaces at all costs. These materials include concrete and asphalt. Hard surfaces do nothing to protect children against big falls and may even be detrimental to what would usually be considered a minor accident.
Surprisingly, grass and dirt do not absorb impacts like the other loose-fitting materials. While it appears soft, grass and dirt are packed materials that don’t hurt as much as concrete, but they also don’t offer nearly as much protection as sand or wood chips.
Start With Safety
We all want our kids to be safe during playtime, especially when it comes to enjoying outdoor time. There are several fantastic options for providing padding for those pesky trips and falls that everyone will have at least once while they are playing.
We love a clubhouse that is both geared for maximum playtime fun but also maximum safety. That’s why The Blue Squirrel Clubhouse has a thick rubber mat on the inside of the first floor to cushion adventures gone awry and the wildest of adventures.
Playground Surfaces | Children's Environmental Health Network
Public Playground Safety Handbook | U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
Playground Safety | HealthyChildren.org
Chromated Arsenicals (CCA) | US EPA