The primary role of playground surfacing materials should be to provide safety and protection, for children on the playground. The debate on whether rubber mulch or pea gravel is the better option is still an ongoing one, whether it’s among playground builders, parents, or concerned folks alike.
In order to make an informed choice between the two, it is important to look at the different attributes they offer to see how they measure up.
Pea gravel consists of smooth round and clean stone of a consistent shape and size. Unlike other types of gravel, which are often designed to compact, it’s the round shape and consistent size of pea gravel that make it a viable option for playgrounds.
Rubber mulch is made from recycled tires. The manufacturing process involves cleaning the tires, grinding them up to a consistent size and removing any wire or fiber from the material. Coatings may also be added during the process to create fun and colorful design options.
If you are looking to embark on a playground project, rubber mulch and pea gravel offer varying degrees of protection. Though the thought of falling onto stone is not very appealing for most people, pea gravel, at depths of 9 inches or more can sufficiently reduce the impact of a fall. The height of your playground equipment however will be a factor when exploring surfacing options. According to the latest playground safety surfacing guidelines, pea gravel will only provide protection up to 5 feet at a 9 inch depth. Temperature and weather conditions should also be a factor when deciding on the best surfacing for your needs. Since Pea Gravel can become quite hard in cold weather, those living in areas with cold winters may want to reconsider using this material.
Due to its composition rubber mulch is extremely soft. The cushioning abilities of this product are generally considered superior to any other surfacing option. At just 6 inches in depth rubber mulch can provide protection from falls from over 12 feet. Unlike pea gravel, temperature does not affect rubber mulch and it performs just is good in cold weather as is does in warm climates.
Aside from falls from playground equipment directly onto the surface, rubber mulch also seems to do better in providing a less abrasive option for when kids are sliding, skidding and generally just getting a bit rowdy on the playground!
Both products are loose fill materials and although both are relatively low cost, easy to obtain and easy to install, their maintenance requirements tend to be higher when compared to the much more expensive unitary types of synthetic surfaces. When exploring either a pea gravel or rubber mulch surface, you should understand that some maintenance will be required which generally consists of inspecting the surface, raking the material to ensure it stays at a consistent depth and periodic top up every few years. One advantage unique to rubber mulch is that it doesn’t break down and doesn’t compact. Over the course of time, and helped along by inclement weather and changing seasons, pea gravel will begin to break down into smaller particles. This “dust” ends up forming what is called a hard pan and is seen most commonly in the high use areas throughout the playground. Hard pans are areas of compacted stone that are troublesome in that they are both dangerous and difficult to break apart.
Depending on your personal taste and preference, both rubber mulch and pea gravel offer different appearances. Pea gravel provides a natural, organic type of appearance. The material is usually grey in color but depending on the source of the stone, some color variation may be available. If you are looking to liven up the playground, rubber mulch is available in a host of both earthtone and bright, vibrant color options.
Pricing of playground surfaces varies widely depending on the type of material used. Loose fill surfaces such as pea gravel, wood fiber and rubber mulch fall into the lower cost category with pea gravel being the lowest cost option. Rubber mulch comes with a higher initial purchase price but can often be offset over time due to reduced maintenance and top up requirements. Synthetic unitary surfaces fall on the other side of the pricing scale. These surfaces offer a unique set of advantages but can be more than 5 times the price of loose fill options.