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best materials to put under a playset

What to Put Under a Playset - Choose the Safest and Best Materials

Staring at the empty space under your shiny new playset, dread sets in. What should you put under an outdoor playset slide so your precious kids don’t get injured? Choosing the right material is crucial for safety and fun. With options like rubber mulch, pea gravel, wood chips, and more—deciding can be overwhelming. Don’t stress!

This guide will give you everything you need to pick the perfect soft, safe surface for your play area. We’ll walk through all the options so you can make an informed decision based on your needs and budget. So, let’s dive in and keep the little ones safe while they play!

Key Takeaways

  • Rubber mulch is the best all-around material for safety, drainage, and durability under playsets. It cushions falls to prevent injuries.

  • Pea gravel provides excellent drainage but no cushioning. Pair it under rubber mulch for a two-layer drainage system.

  • Wood mulch is very affordable but decomposes quickly. Best for small playsets or temporary use.

  • Poured rubber tiles offer maximum design flexibility but are expensive and require professional installation.

playset with two slides on a rubber mulch

    Why Proper Playset Ground Cover is Essential

    Before we get into the different material options, let’s first cover why having the right ground surface under and around your playset is so important:

    Impact Absorption and Injury Prevention

    The primary reason you need proper ground cover is for impact absorption. This helps cushion falls from play equipment and prevents more serious injuries from different possible fall zones around the playset.

    According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Public Playground Safety Handbook, falls from playground equipment are the number one hazard associated with playground injuries. While residential playsets may not be as tall as public playground structures, falling onto a hard surface like concrete or packed dirt can still cause bumps, choking hazards, bruises, fractures, and other injuries.

    So having a proper absorbent base material under and around the playset helps cushion falls and reduce impact forces on the body. Materials like wood chips, pea gravel, and rubber all provide much better fall protection compared to grass or bare ground.

    Drainage and Avoiding Muddy Messes

    Stagnant water pooling around playset foundations can breed bacteria, cause equipment to rot and rust, and create a muddy mess.

    Quality materials allow water to quickly drain through, keeping the play area dry and sanitary. This is especially useful in areas that get a lot of rain.

    Low Maintenance and Containment

    You want the surface under the playset to be low maintenance so you’re not constantly having to rake, refill material, or deal with overgrowth. High-quality materials like rubber mulch stay neatly contained and don’t get displaced easily. You also want something that inhibits weed growth.

    Visual Appeal

    While safety is paramount, you also want your new outdoor swingset area to be visually appealing and look nice in your yard. Some materials like colored rubber mulch allow for more design flexibility when coordinating with the equipment design and landscaping.

    Durability and Longevity

    Of course, cost is always a consideration with any backyard addition. Quality surfacing materials stand up well to heavy use from kids playing over many years. You don’t want to have to frequently replace the ground cover under your playset. Materials that hold up over time provide a better return on investment.

    wooden playset with one slide on a pea gravel

    Top Surface Material Choices for Playsets

    There are a variety of different materials suitable for use under playgrounds and playsets, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. The key options include:

    Rubber Mulch

    Rubber mulch has exploded in popularity in recent years as a playground and playset surfacing material. It’s made by shredding up recycled tires into small crumb-like particles that resemble traditional wood mulch.


    • Excellent impact absorption and cushioning to prevent injuries from falls
    • Good drainage capabilities
    • Long-lasting - doesn’t decompose or get displaced from the playset area
    • Comes in a variety of color options are available
    • Doesn’t attract bugs/insects like wood mulch
    • Low maintenance


    • More expensive upfront cost than traditional mulch
    • Limited color options compared to poured rubber
    • Can get hot in direct sun

    Overall, rubber mulch is regarded as the best all-around option in terms of safety, ease of maintenance, and longevity. It does carry a higher upfront cost than wood mulch but often pays for itself over time by avoiding frequent mulch replacement costs. It comes in a few basic color options like brown, green, and red.

    Pea Gravel

    Pea gravel consists of small, smooth stones, typically 1/4 to 1/2 inch in diameter. It’s often used for playset surfacing due to its excellent drainage properties.


    • Very inexpensive
    • Allows for excellent drainage


    • Does not provide cushioning for falls - just as hazardous as concrete or dirt
    • Can be messy as stones get displaced outside the play area
    • Can be uncomfortable for bare feet

    Pea gravel works well when paired with a cushioned base material in a two-layer system. For example, combining a few inches of pea gravel on top of 6-12 inches of rubber mulch. This allows you to get the best of both worlds - cushioning for safety and great drainage. Pea gravel is also sometimes used for low-cost temporary surfacing.

    Wood Chips/Mulch

    Wood chips or mulch made from shredded wood material have been used for decades as a cost-effective playground surface.


    • Very inexpensive, often free from tree trimming companies
    • Natural appearance blends into landscaping


    • Doesn’t provide as much shock absorption as rubber
    • Decomposes relatively quickly, requiring frequent replacement
    • Can harbor insects/animal waste
    • Can be messy as mulch scatters and floats away
    • Can cause splinters

    Wood mulch is best for small playset areas or as a budget-friendly temporary solution. While it does provide some cushioning, it packs down over time and loses its absorbency. Expect to have to replenish the mulch every 1-2 years. Untreated wood chips can also pose a slight toxic hazard.

    Artificial Grass/Turf

    For playset owners looking for a super low-maintenance solution, artificial grass is an option. It provides cushioning similar to rubber mulch but doesn’t require any upkeep.


    • Cushioning for safety
    • No maintenance required
    • Doesn’t need to be raked or replaced
    • Aesthetically appealing


    • Expensive upfront cost
    • Doesn’t allow for drainage, requires additional base prep

    You need to prepare a gravel base and ensure proper slope and drainage so water doesn’t pool under the turf. Artificial grass works best in low-moisture climates. It does provide great safety cushioning and avoids any maintenance hassle.

    Poured Rubber Tiles or Mats

    For commercial playgrounds or residential playset owners wanting maximum design flexibility, poured rubber tiles or mats are an option. These are produced from shredded recycled tires mixed with a binder and molded into a variety of shapes and colors.


    • Great cushioning for safety
    • Can be designed with custom colors/patterns
    • The interlocking system is easy to install


    • Very expensive
    • Doesn’t have great drainage, and requires a graveled base

    Poured rubber tiles allow you to create colorful designs under your playset. However, the cost is prohibitively expensive for most residential settings. The tiles also don’t have inherent drainage. This type of surfacing requires professional installation.

    Loose-Fill Rubber

    A less common option is loose-fill or poured shredded rubber. It’s installed by pouring the material instead of using mats or tiles.


    • Good safety cushioning
    • Full drainage
    • Lower cost than tiles


    • Requires professional installation
    • Limited color options

    Loose rubber has some installation challenges and isn’t quite as neat and tidy as rubber mulch. But it provides a decent compromise between safety, drainage, and cost.

    wooden playset with one slide on artificial turf

    Key Considerations When Selecting Playset Surfacing

    Now that you’re familiar with the most common infill materials, let’s go over the key factors to weigh when deciding on the best option for your playset area:

    Playset Height and Required Fall Height

    The height of your playset equipment is important for determining how much shock-absorbing material you need. Most residential playset heights are in the 4 to 10 feet range at their highest point.

    The industry standard is to install ground material to a depth that can absorb falls from at least the highest accessible point on the playset.

    For example, if you have an 8-foot-high playset tower, you’d want approximately 8-12 inches of rubber mulch or wood chips to cushion a fall from that maximum height.


    Cost is always a major determining factor when making upgrades to your home and property. Rubber mulch, poured surfacing and artificial turf are more expensive upfront investments, but also last much longer than inexpensive wood mulch.

    Determine your budget and weigh the longevity of higher priced materials against potential long-term cost savings from avoiding frequent mulch replacement every 1-2 years. A higher upfront cost can be justified if it saves time and hassle down the road.

    Drainage Needs

    Consider the moisture levels and drainage patterns in your yard. Gravel materials provide the best drainage for wet environments. Wood mulch also drains adequately. Rubber mulch and artificial grass shed water but don’t allow it to pass through. Evaluate whether standing water could be an issue based on your climate and yard drainage.

    Aesthetics and Design Preferences

    Color and the overall look of the surfacing materials are other factors if aesthetics are important to you. Rubber mulch and poured rubber offer the most options for coordinating colors with your playset design. Or you may prefer the natural look of wood chips blending with your landscaping.

    Ease of Installation

    Basic materials such as wood chips and pea gravel are simple DIY projects for most homeowners to install themselves. Poured-in-place rubber requires professional equipment and skills. Interlocking rubber tiles can technically be installed by handy homeowners but often benefit from professional expertise.

    Maintenance Requirements

    Consider how much maintenance you’re willing to take on long-term. Wood mulch requires raking plus frequent replenishment every year or two. Rubber mulch, artificial turf, and poured surfacing are nearly maintenance-free. Gravel can scatter over time and need to be contained.

     Kidkraft Outdoor Odyssey Playset on a wood mulch

    If you’re still unsure what’s best for your playset area after considering all the factors, here is a quick reference guide to the best materials for common playset types and settings:

    Playset Type Recommended Surfacing
    Best Overall Rubber Mulch
    For Wooden Playsets Rubber Mulch
    For Vinyl Playsets Rubber Mulch
    For Metal Playsets Poured Rubber Tiles/Mats
    For Large Public Playgrounds Poured Rubber
    For Backyards Rubber Mulch
    For Small Playsets Pea Gravel and Wood Mulch Combo
    Best Low-Cost Options Wood Mulch or Pea Gravel
    For Poor Drainage Areas Pea Gravel Under Rubber Mulch
    Best Looking Poured Rubber or Artificial Turf
    Most Sustainable Wood Mulch
    Easiest Installation Wood Mulch
    Most Durable Rubber Mulch or Poured Rubber

    No matter what type of playset you choose, following proper installation guidelines and maintenance practices is key to maximum safety, enjoyment, and longevity. Be sure to check out our guide to the best outdoor playsets when selecting new equipment.

    Investing in a quality playset built for safety and durability is just as important as choosing the right protective surfacing.

    wooden playset with one slide and rockwall on poured rubber

    Installation Tips For Swing Set Mulch

    Once you’ve selected the right materials for your playset area, proper installation is crucial. Here are some key tips:

    • Prepare and level the installation area - remove any grass/roots and fill any holes or low spots. Compact soil firmly.

    • Playsets should have a minimum 6-foot perimeter safety border around the structure where ground material is installed.

    • Dig out containment pits around the perimeter to keep material contained. These can be lined with landscape edging or small retaining walls.

    • Install primary cushioning material first like rubber mulch, wood chips, or gravel. Depth should meet or exceed the maximum playset fall height. Use the following depth chart as a guideline for the minimum installation depth needed based on the maximum playset fall height:

      Maximum Fall Height Minimum Installation Depth
      Up to 5 feet 6 inches
      5 - 6 feet 6 - 8 inches
      7 - 10 feet 9 - 12 inches
      Over 10 feet 12+ inches
    • Pour materials, don’t pile them. Level and distribute evenly, avoiding uneven areas.

    • For two-layer systems, install a cushioning base layer first then top with a drainage layer like pea gravel.

    • if using loose-fill rubber, have professionals install and pack equipment that is recommended to properly compact and contain the material.

    Follow all manufacturer guidelines for the installation of whichever surfacing materials you select for optimal safety and performance.

    Maintenance Tips For the Best Materials To Put Under Your Swing Set

    Regular maintenance keeps your playset surface safe, sanitary, and contained. So, follow these recommended guidelines for whichever material you choose.

    • Remove weeds as they sprout up. Weed-killer chemicals should not be used.

    • Replenish loose-fill materials such as wood mulch or rubber mulch as they decompose or displace over time.

    • Ensure drainage channels are clear of debris. Clogged drains can cause hazardous standing water.

    • Deep clean/power wash surfaces periodically to prevent buildup of pollen, mold, algae, etc.

    • Brush/leaf blowers are useful for tidying up scattered loose materials.

    • Avoid food waste or liquids that can breed bacteria and attract pests.

    Final Thoughts

    Selecting the proper ground cover surface for under your swing set or playset area is an important decision. Take the time to carefully consider your options and weigh all the factors of safety, cost, drainage, installation, and maintenance. There are great options for all needs and budgets, from basic wood mulch to high-performance poured rubber. Follow installation and maintenance best practices for long-lasting safety. With the right surfacing in place, you can relax while your kids enjoy hours of carefree fun on the playset!

    three children playing on the Kidkraft Lindale Playset FSC


    How much surfacing material do I need for my playset area?

    The general rule of thumb is you need enough material to cover the entire playset footprint plus a 6 ft safety border around the perimeter. For depth, use the fall height chart to determine how many cubic yards you need based on your playset's maximum height.

    Should I put weed barrier fabric under the playset surfacing? 

    Yes, weed barrier fabric is recommended under loose materials like wood chips and rubber mulch. This helps prevent weeds and grass from growing up through the material. Just be sure water can still drain through.

    How often should playset surfacing be replaced?

    It depends on the material, but wood mulch needs replacement every 1-2 years. Rubber mulch and poured surfacing can last 5-10 years or longer before needing refreshment. Perform annual inspections and refresh as needed.

    Is it safe for my kids to play on pea gravel?

    Pea gravel alone is not recommended as it provides no shock absorption. Combining it with a cushioning base layer like wood chips or rubber mulch creates a safer two-layer surfacing system.

    Can I install playground surfacing myself?

    Basic materials like mulch and gravel can be DIY-friendly. Poured-in-place rubber and turf should be installed by those with experience to ensure proper preparation and containment.

    Previous article What Type of Wood is Best for Outdoor Playsets? Find the Best Wood for Swing Sets
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    About The Author

    Andy Wu - Resident Expert

    Andy Wu - Resident Expert

    Andy Wu is the resident backyard products expert and hails from Atlanta, Georgia. His passion for crafting outdoor retreats began in 2003.

    As a fellow homeowner, he founded Backyard Oasis to provide top-quality furnishings and equipment, collaborating with leading manufacturers.

    His main focus is on sheds and generators!

    In his spare time he like to hike the tallest mountains in the world and travel with his family.

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