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Keeping Kids Safe on Wood Mulch Playgrounds

June 30, 2015

two children sliding happily down a slide

It comes as no surprise that wood playground mulch, otherwise known as Engineered Wood Fiber, is one of the most popular playground surface options in the country.  As one of the cheapest, easiest options available on the market, wood mulch is an attractive choice for cost-conscious playground owners. 


At $2-$3 per square foot of playground, wood mulch is a steal when compared with rubber tiles or rubber mulch.  It’s also simple to install, and relatively simple to maintain.  Finally, many people prefer the natural, organic look that wood mulch offers. 


How does wood mulch rank on the safety scale, and how can kids be kept safer on wood mulch playgrounds?  There are several factors to consider.


Composition: Wood playground mulch consists of 100% virgin wood chips, processed to a specific size and softness.  Wood playground mulch is an organic, untreated, safe material for kids and pets.  NEVER SUBSTITUTE standard, uncertified wood chips for certified playground mulch; standard wood chips may contain hazards, toxins, and other materials mixed in.


Impact Attenuation: The key factor in playground surfacing safety is impact attenuation; in other words, how well the surfacing absorbs shocks to protect kids from falls.  Nine inch depths of wood mulch have been shown to protect kids from falls up to seven feet high.  The recommended depth for playgrounds is 12”.


Compacting/Displacement: A significant downside to wood mulch is that it naturally compacts over time, losing its shock absorbent qualities.  Wood mulch is also easily displaced, due to winds, rain/snow, and regular playground activity.  It is imperative to A) install adequate depths upon initial installation; B)regularly top off wood mulch to appropriate depths (generally every 2-3 years); and C) prevent displacement by installing barriers around the playground’s perimeter.


Fall Zones: High traffic areas such as the bottom of slides and swings are particularly susceptible to displacement and compacting.  Wear mats should be installed in all high-traffic areas.


Drainage: Improperly installed wood mulch systems retain moisture, becoming slippery in bad weather and inviting insects and mold.  (Some moisture will naturally be retained in the mulch, even with the best drainage system.)  Wood mulch providers should be consulted regarding drainage systems prior to installation.


Seasonal Issues: Wood mulch has been documented to freeze in cold climates.  Frozen wood mulch possesses no impact attenuation qualities; as such, wood mulch playgrounds should not be used in freezing weather.