Backyard Discovery Blog
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5 Surfaces Underneath Your Cedar Playsets to Save Your Child From Harm
A Guide For What To Put Beneath Your Swing Set
If you decide to buy your kids an outdoor playset, you are going to want to make sure that they are safe. No matter how well constructed the actual playground equipment is, you cannot guarantee that there won’t be any tumbles or falls. Kids are kids, and they are undoubtedly going to take risks and push themselves in their play.
Indeed, some of the best learning experiences come from them trying out new things and extending themselves. This means that you really should think about the type of surface on which you position your outdoor playset.
Let’s begin by stating the obvious. We do not suggest that you position your playset on concrete or asphalt. You may have space on a concrete pad in your yard, or even in a driveway, but if your child has even a minor fall, it has the potential to be very painful and even permanently damaging to their health. You still sometimes find concrete under play equipment in old public playgrounds, and the only winners here are the local medical centres, who gain unnecessary young clients.
It is fairly common to see outdoor playsets plonked directly onto a grass surface, and this is better than them being on a concrete or asphalt surface. The problem is that while grass can provide some cushioning for small bodies that fall on it and even dirt can be okay when it is loose, weather and constant use can wear out the grass cover and compact the soil. Compacted soil is, of course, hard soil.
It is good practice to have an impact absorbing surface if your kids are going to be on equipment that allows them to be more than two feet above the ground.
Kids Health have published a comprehensive paper on playground safety. One of their recommendations is that the combined height of the playground equipment and the child standing on it should be no more than 12 feet. If it is any higher than that, no surface material will effectively prevent your child from harm if there is an accidental fall from the highest point.
So, assuming that you want a safer surface under your playground equipment, what are some options you could consider?
1. Sand or Pea Gravel
Sand or pea gravel are still not perfect surfaces to keep your kids unharmed, but, at least, they are comparatively cheap, and they are natural, which might fit in well with your garden decor. You will need to build some barrier around the edge of the surface play area, to keep the sand or pea gravel in place.
If your play equipment is less than eight feet high, 12 inches should be a deep enough fill - but don’t try and compact it. Otherwise, you are simply repeating the problem that dirt has - compacted fill makes for a hard and painful surface. Your kids need loose fill to cushion them should they fall and land on the ground.
It certainly would not hurt if you added extra fill, for instance making it up 20 inches deep, to add additional cushioning for young bodies that fall onto the playground surface. Your kids do need to be relatively careful in wet conditions as sand, in particular, can get hard and unyielding when wet.
One disadvantage of sand and pea gravel, compared to some the alternative surfaces, is that your cats and dogs may consider it a personal toilet, just for them.
Sand is light, so there can be issues in windy conditions as it blows around. Even gravel can easily spread away from the play area, and so you may need to regularly rake it back into place.
Although this is hopefully less of an issue in a private playground than it is at a public playground, do keep your eyes open for hazardous objects hidden in the sand or pea gravel.
Sand and pea gravel surfaces are not considered particularly suitable for kids with wheelchairs and are not recommended for your playground if your child is disabled.
2. Mulch or Chips
Mulch and wood chips are natural solutions to your outdoor playset surface issues. These are a very popular kind of surface that are comparatively cheap and considered environmentally friendly.
These are easy to find and install. Both types are also relatively inexpensive.
They have similar advantages and disadvantages as with sand and pea gravel. Wood chips, in particular, are sturdier and likely to last longer, with there being little likelihood that they will blow away in the wind. The wood chips also seem to be less inviting to your pets, so they are likely to remain cleaner for longer. Depending on your climate, they may attract roaches, however.
By definition, both mulch and wood chips are biodegradable, so these surfaces will eventually need replacing. In time, wood chips will compact, so every 2-3 years, you should add a fresh top up of new chips.
These playground surfaces absorb moisture, and they do freeze in cold conditions.
3. Shredded Rubber
Shredded rubber is another loose fill surface that you could consider placing under your playground equipment.
As with the other types of loose fill material, you need to build a frame to keep your shredded rubber within, and you need to ensure that your surface is 12 to 20 inches deep.
The shredded rubber used around playground equipment is an effective means of recycling old tires.
Shredded rubber costs more than other loose fills, but is cheaper than the more solid rubber surfaces.
Although shredded rubber will not decompose, it will scuff and can be kicked around. You do need to make it part of your weekly routine to rake your shredded rubber chips back into position. This is particularly noticeable in the high wear areas, such as beneath swings and at the foot of slides.
Although not common, there have been a few nasty fires in playgrounds with shredded rubber surfaces. These fires give off toxic fumes, and you definitely would not want your kids anywhere near your backyard playset until you remove and replace the rubber surface.
4. Rubber Mats
Rubber mats have become more popular as play surfaces in recent years. They avoid many of the problems that loose fills have. For instance, your pets are unlikely to use a rubber mat surface as a toilet (and if they do it will be clearly visible, and you can easily remove the offensive matter, rather than having your kids find it while they play). The mats are likely to be long-lasting, and will not need to replace them on as regular a basis as the loose fill products.
The tiles are designed in such a way that they interlock with each other. Your mat thickness will depend on the height of your equipment. For instance, if the highest point that a child could fall from your playset is 8 feet, then your mats should be 3.25 inches thick.
You will find rubber mats to be considerably more expensive than the loose fill products, however. It is also considerably more difficult to install rubber mats around your play equipment, and you may need to ask for professional help.
Also, if you have deliberately bought a naturally stained outdoor playset, because of its looks, then rubber mats may well take away from your vista.
If your child (or a regular visitor) is handicapped, you should think about rubber mats around your playset as it should be easy to get a wheelchair onto this type of surface.
Rubber mats can be bought in a variety of different colors, so you can pick one that suits your playground and yard decor.
5. Poured-in-Place Rubber
Poured-in-Place Rubber is probably the safest regular surface you could consider using for your new outdoor playset. At the same time, it is also the least natural surface, and the one most likely to ruin your natural setting (although they do come in a variety of colors and can be made to look very attractive).
It is your most expensive option, particularly as you are likely to have two layers poured, a “wear” layer and a “cushion” layer. This is unlikely to be a job for a DIY home handyman. You will almost certainly call in the professionals to lay one of these surfaces.
As with rubber tiles, the Poured-in-Place Rubber surface’s thickness will depend on the height of your play equipment, i.e. the further a child could fall, the thicker the surface needs to be.
These surfaces are definitely wheelchair friendly if that is relevant to you.
This type of surface is, unsurprisingly, generally your most expensive option for a safe area underneath your outdoor playset, but you will, at least, know that your kids will come out of any falls from the playhouse equipment relatively unscathed. This is probably the longest lasting of the safe surfaces, too. You will not need to carry out much maintenance on these surfaces, either.
The reality is that most outdoor playset owners do not place their outdoor playground equipment on soft surfaces (yet they expect local authorities and schools to do so with public playgrounds). It only takes one slip, and your child could be lying on the ground. When it comes to kids, safety needs to come first.
Outdoor playsets should be nowhere near concrete or asphalt. In particular. These surfaces do not have any give at all if a tiny body lands on them.
You also need to think carefully about where your kids are likely to fall. There is not much point having an expensive poured-in-place rubber surface if it simply sits under the play equipment itself. If your kids are using the play equipment, they are active and moving. For instance, if a child extends themselves too much on the swings, and falls off mid-air they won’t just drop. They will fly forwards (or backwards). Therefore, you need your surface material to run at least 6 feet past the equipment to allow for this.
It is also important to remember, that accidents do happen. They are a natural part of play. Your child falling off their playset is not a sign of poor supervision; it is simply a sign of a child trying to extend themselves, possibly beyond their capabilities. If they land on a soft surface, they can look at their fall as a learning experience, rather than as a disaster.