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Help with mulching a child's play area

Gibsonia, PA

This project will be a 3rd birthday present for the daughter of a buddy of mine. We are planning on mulching a 12' x 20' area with the rubber playground stuff and putting a playhouse with a small slide and a sandbox in it. I was thinking that we would put down a couple layers of landscape timbers around it to keep the mulch in place and then maybe some border plants around it.

I would listen to advice about what to plant, but we are assuming that my buddy's wife will do most of the decision-making in that area.

What I am really looking for is some advice about the rubber mulch. Have you used it, and do you have any reviews or recommendations? I know that a 6 inch layer is recommended, but the tallest thing in this play area will be about 3 feet, so we figure that 4 inches is plenty. The main hazards for the kid would be tripping and hitting her knee, anyway. 4 inches works out to 80 cubic feet, so I was figuring on 10 yards of the stuff.

Since it's Sunday, I haven't been able to call around to the regular landscape suppliers in my area, but the big box stores are ridiculously expensive. It looks like it would be close to a thousand bucks for that much mulch if we buy it by the 1 ft bag. Has anyone bought it by the yard and have a ballpark price figure?

Any other tips on working with the stuff would be recommended. For example, how good of a job does it do at retarding weed growth? Should we put a layer of plastic over the ground first? Is it really as cushiony and long-lasting as they claim?

Thanks for reading, and thanks in advance for any advice.


Dublin, CA(Zone 9a)

I've heard concerns about the chemicals that can leach out of the rubber mulch, may not be something you want around children. I'm sure there are different points of view on this, so I'd recommend doing some research on the information that's out there and then make up your own mind whether that's something you'd want to use or not.

I expect that it would be more expensive than regular mulch, after all it doesn't break down like regular mulch so you won't have to replace it nearly as often, so if you look at the cost over many years, it probably comes out to be the same.

And regardless of what type of mulch you use, for the playground area I would put down the weed barrier underneath it, it'll help prevent weeds for that much longer. I wouldn't use the weed barrier under any areas that you're planting though.

Gibsonia, PA

Thanks for the advice about the possible toxins, ecrane. I have worked in the automotive and building trades my whole life, and I tend not to think about that kind of stuff anymore. But, just because I have exposed myself to poisonous crap for years doesn't mean that this little girl needs to. The reason that we had discussed the rubber mulch was for safety purposes, so it is a little wake up call to think about safety in a different way. And yes you are right, wood mulch would come out to about 1/5 the expense, and I can get it from a much wider variety of places, so it would be easier to pick and choose something that would be right for this project.

I will make my buddy do some research and decide whether the rubber is what he really wants.

Hillsborough, NC(Zone 7b)

Call the park and rec dept locally. They may have some ideas. Along the lines of safety - be careful with the planting.

some of our most common and tough plants - great for the trimming of the space may be poisonous, or the 'juices may be irritating to the skin and last - if the branches are thorny or stiff - may pose a risk for injury.

Hate to give all the warnings..makes a dark cloud over the fun of the planning and building - but better forewarned. Check this out -- all info about childs play area safety

St. Louis County, MO(Zone 5a)

Bob, don't even consider sand, the neighborhood cats will use it for their bathroom. I like pea gravel.

Cathy in St. Louis

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

Sand is fine for a sand pit so long as you make a cover over it to keep ALL animals out, even the bugs that love sand like ants, I had a sand pit built for my kids years ago and the cover was made so that it folded back in two sections and when folded flat, it was also a seat for the kids to sit with their feet in the SPECIAL KIDS PLAY SAND, we got the idea from a book I found in USA about landscapeing yards for adults and kids, I would also check the type of wood bark that you use as some woods give out toxic resins, we are all making this sound so negative, but the idea of getting in touch with the parks department is a really good idea, the other safety part is, other kids might come into the area to join in the play and we have to think of safty ALL ROUND, as this lucky little girl is only 3 years old, I would miss out the planting around this play area and perhaps add some pright coloured shapes and maybe a small tunnel that she can hide in, or a storage box for all her sand toys etc, it can be turned into a boat by adding a mast pole that can be fun, just keep it simple, safe and most of all, fun so she can let her imagination run riot, kids learn better when they use their own imagination, what a great friend you are, good luck and send us a picture. WeeNel.

St. Louis County, MO(Zone 5a)

WeeNel, I'd love to see a picture of that sand pit if you have one.

Cedar Falls, IA(Zone 4b)

An alternative to rubber mulch is to lay down a weed barrier and then put wood mulch on top. I'd avoid dyed mulch with children (both for the possible chemical exposure, but because children, clothing, and dye would seem like a potential laundry nightmare). I also wouldn't dismiss rubber mulch without looking into it further. If it is truly rubber, and not some kind of plastic with lots of plasticizers &/or UV stabilizers to make it soft and pliable, it might be very benign. It also might leave marks on the kids' clothing too, which is another consideration.

I'd be most concerned that the timbers you use are safe, as some pre-treated lumber is very toxic. Look for pre-treated lumber that clearly identifies that it is safe.

St. Louis County, MO(Zone 5a)

Bob, how's the building going? I'd love to see a pic when you are finished as I have Grands that need a play yard.

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

Hi Cathy, have not forgotten your request for a picture of the sand pit I mentioned, we dont have it any more as our kids outgrew it years ago, but the book I got it from is now in the hands of my grown up son, so soon as I can get hold of it, I will send you a pic, dont want you to think I had ignored your request. Happy Gardening. WeeNel.

central, NJ(Zone 6b)

I read that the rubber mulch just isn't really useful for the gardens since it doesn't provide any nutrients for the plants. You won't need that obviously for a play area. The only other con was that it kind of stinks when it gets wet, but for a kids play area it got great reviews..

Dublin, CA(Zone 9a)

...except for the minor issue of heavy metals and other toxins that can be present in the rubber, may not be something you want your kids playing on! There are people out there who disagree and say the rubber isn't harmful--I'm not here to argue one side or the other, just wanting to raise awareness that there are two different perspectives out there on the rubber mulch. So I want to encourage people to do thorough research on the info that's out there on both sides and then make up your own mind.

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