Last Modified: April 2, 2024

Wood Chips For Play Area

Natural, Safe and Fun

Wooden chips underneath swings in a child's outdoor play area

By Ben Parrot - Landscape Gardener & Amateur Geologist

Overview

Children's play areas can be a magical place offering hours of endless fun and adventure. But, how do you create a safe and enjoyable space for kids to play that also offers you some peace of mind? One of the key factors to consider when creating a safe space is the type of surface material you use. In this article we will cover the use of wood chips on playgrounds, tips to install it and also create a fun environment for play.

Just a quick message regarding our newest addition – the 'Pebble Picker' tool – now accessible in the sidebar or menu. It facilitates effortless browsing and selection of decorative aggregates, categorised by colour and type.

Key Takeaways

  • Choose: The right play area wood chip is essential to ensure a safe and enjoyable environment.
  • Alternatives: There are many natural alternatives all with their own pros and cons.
  • Safety: Learn about critical fall height safety and the ratings of different tested materials.
  • Build: Access our DIY guide on how to build your play area.
Close up of safe play wood chips

Choosing the Right Wood Chips for Play Areas

A well-designed wood chippings play area can provide an excellent space for kids to play, explore, run, jump, and climb. While approved play area wood chips are usually of good product and great quality, it's the fact that they also offer the critical fall height safety testing, that makes them a more suitable choice for parents seeking peace of mind. Much of what makes a wood chip playground safe does depend on choosing the right ones for your play surface.

With a plethora of options available, it's important to conduct research and find the best material for your needs. Play wood chip, natural and eco-friendly options, as well as rubber chipping-based surfaces are all materials that can be used to create a great quality, safe and fun area. Each option has its pros and cons, which we will explore in the following sections.

Outdoor wood chipping park

Play Grade Wood Chips

'Play grade' wood play chips are specifically designed for playgrounds and public play areas to provide long-lasting durability and tested safety. They have been rigorously tested to meet safety standards such as BS7188 and ISEN1177, ensuring they are a quality product and deliver standard safety profile. Moreover, opting for a sustainably forested wood chips is an environmentally-friendly solution which negates the risks of toxicity posed by some rubber-based safety surfaces. Aesthetically, they can also add a naturalistic finish to the installation.

1childs swing a park image by ivan ilijas from

Image by Ivan Ilijas from Pixabay

Wood Chip vs. Bark?

Play bark is soft and dark brown, ideal for areas needing a cushioned surface. Play chip bark, sourced from the tree's inner part, is durable and gives a rustic look, suitable for high-traffic areas. With a little between the two with regards to safety, the choice often comes down to aesthetic preference.

Play bark wood chippings or play bark, derived from tree bark, decompose slowly and are sustainably sourced from forestry by-products. They require minimal maintenance, however you must check for sharp debris and remove to ensure safety. Play bark provides a safe, attractive, and eco-friendly solution, which we cover in some depth, here.

Large outdoor wood park

Play Grade Wood Chip vs. Rubber Chippings

Possibly the safest surface for children's play areas are any which are made from recycled rubber tyre chippings, particularly the bonded type. While recycled rubber chippings raise concerns over some potential toxicity (related to their leachate), as a play surface, the fall height safety, traction and durability they offer when installed correctly cannot be surpassed. However, they are far more expensive and very challenging as a DIY installation.

On the other hand, play grade wood chips are natural, cost-efficient material, and easy to install and maintain. However, they can be untidy and may pose a slipping hazard if not well-maintained.

Handling freshly shredded tree mulch

Natural and Eco-Friendly Alternatives

For those interested in other sustainable or natural alternatives to a wood chips play area, there are many available. These include:

What is Engineered Wood Fibre?

Engineered wood fibre, a top choice for playground mulch across the the USA, can last for many years with proper maintenance and care. Some steps to preserve the integrity of your EWF and protect your playground surfacing include regular inspections, repairs, and proper cleaning. We cover it in more detail here.

Ultimately, the selection of materials should be based on your budget, preferences and the level of safety required.

Slippery slide with ewf at the base

Creating a Safe & Fun Wood Chip Play Area

After selecting the appropriate material for your play area, the next step is to design a fun and safe space in your back garden. This involves considering factors such as critical fall height safety, positioning and spacing of play equipment, and selecting age-appropriate play equipment. A well-designed play area will not only provide a secure environment for children but also stimulate their physical, cognitive, and social development.

In the subsequent sections, we offer information to help you make an informed choice about how to design the type of space you want to create.

Children playing on climbing frame. Jpg

Critical Fall Height Safety

Critical fall height (CFH) is the maximum height from which a child can safely fall without risk of serious injury. The CFH will vary by the depth of the materials being used. This must be taken into account in order to protect the safety of children of all ages.

For wood chip play areas, it is recommended to lay the wood chips with a minimum depth of 15-30cm (6") to ensure adequate impact absorption for falls. See our table below for the benchmarks.

Material*

Depth 

15cm/6"

Depth 

23cm/9"

Depth 

30cm/12"

Wood chips

2m/7'

3m/10'

3.3m/11'

Shredded bark mulch

1.8m/6'

3m/10'

3.3m/11'

Engineered wood fibre

1.8m/6'

2m/7'

3.6m/12'

Fine sand

1.5m/5'

1.5m/5'

2.7m/9'

Coarse sand

1.5m/5'

1.5m/5'

1.8m/6'

Fine gravel

1.8m/6'

2m/7'

3m/10'

Medium gravel

1.5m/5'

1.5m/5'

1.8m/6'

Taken from page 5 of 'The Handbook For Playground Safety'.

*For the uncompressed depth of each material.

Need to work out how much play wood chips your play area project needs? Use our free wood chip calculator.

Positioning and Spacing

Proper positioning and spacing can increase the safety for children, their play access and freedom of movement, by generating a logical flow of traffic. When designing your play area, consider the dimensions of the space, the age of the children, and the type of play equipment being installed.

Here are some safety measures to consider when making your plan:

  • Make sure there is shock-absorbing protective material under and around the play equipment, extending at least 1.8m (6 feet) beyond the structure's perimeter.
  • Ensure that there is ample space for children to use the equipment safely. For instance, slides should not be positioned in front of swings in multi-activity structures.
  • Each piece of play equipment should have at least 1.8m (6 feet) of play area around it. The areas in front of and behind swings require even more space.
  • Active and quiet activities should be separated. For example, sandboxes should be located away from swings, or a guardrail or barrier should be used to separate these areas.

There are a raft of issues and guidelines to consider when designing amazing playgrounds, which you can find official and detailed information about in this PDF.

Outdoor climbing frame in a garden. Jpg

Selecting Age-Appropriate Play Equipment

Choosing age-appropriate play equipment is not just vital to safety; it also helps children exercise their physical capabilities and investigate the environment. It also cultivates their senses, encourages creativity, develops problem-solving skills, and fosters social interaction.

Playgrounds should be designed with age-appropriate sections, as their size and abilities vary significantly with age. In public areas, signage indicating the age-appropriate areas are also vital. Here are some guidelines:

Ages 6 - 23 Months

For infants aged 6 to 23 months, a play space should be spacious and allow for movement and exploration.

Ages 2-5 Years Old

Children aged 2-5 years, play spaces should feature smaller steps and crawl spaces, with play areas potentially including areas to crawl, low platforms with ramps and ladders, low tables for sand and water play, tricycle paths with various textures, flexible spring rockers, covered sand areas, and shorter slides.

Ages 5- 12 Years Old

School-age children could include angled rope or chain climbers, climbing pieces, horizontal bars, cooperative pieces like tyre swings, slides and sliding poles, and open spaces for running and ball games. Selecting age-appropriate equipment can make play areas safer, more enjoyable, and more developmentally appropriate for children.

Therefore, when selecting play equipment, it's important to review important factors like the age of the children using the space and the size of the play area.

Child playing in a climbing park image by alisa dyson from

Build a Wood Chip Play Area

Once you've chosen the best wood chippings for play area, and designed your play area, it's time to build. Installation includes ground preparation, establishing edging or borders, and laying the wood chips on top of a membrane. For the DIYers, a detailed, step-by-step guide is available here.

Measuring up for garden project. Jpg

Next, we provide a quick list of the main steps in a play area project, followed by some handy tips about the process.

  1. 1
    Start by making a skeleton plan.
  2. 2
    Mark out the boundaries of the area.
  3. 3
    Prepare the ground, first, by removing any grass or weeds.
  4. 4
    Dig out the area to the desired depth and then flatten or level the area.
  5. 5
    Lay a weed fabric or heavy duty membrane.
  6. 6
    Install play ground equipment according to manufacturers specifications.
  7. 7
    Install an edging or border.
  8. 8
    Add the play chips to the required depth and rake it level.
We have an article about how to lay bark chippings which is designed to be a useful supplement to this article.
Gardening tools and materials next to wheelbarrow. Jpg

Preparing the Ground

When constructing a base for laying any decorative aggregates, the first step is always preparing the ground by removing any weeds, grass or paving. The next step is to dig the area up to the required depth and level the surface.

PRO TIP: Test if the soil in the designated area has any drainage issues (e.g. difficulty absorbing water). You will need to address any issues or you will end up with a stagnant swimming pool full of soggy wood chips.

PRO TIP: Laying a heavy duty membrane, on a level base before adding the play chips, will reduce the chance of weeds forming and be effective in containing the chips.

Installing edging, such as a treated wood play area border, defines the space and helps prevent the loss of play chips from the area. Materials such as softwood, rail sleepers, or even rubber edging can be used effectively.

1weed membrane fabric for garden

Maintaining Wood Chips on Playgrounds

Keeping the surface level and at the correct depth to maintain the critical fall height safety rating is important and can be achieved by regular raking and the occasional testing of the depth with a ruler. It's also important to keep an eye out for sharp objects for foreign debris which could cause harm to the kids when they play. Ensuring that the foundation of the play equipment is sturdy on a regular basis is also advisable.

1garden rake on top of a pile of leaves. Jpg

Ordering Your Wood Chippings

Now that you have a plan, calculating the amount of wood chippings you will need, and ordering, is the last topic to cover. This includes understanding delivery terms and conditions, and ensuring safe delivery access, is key. Purchasing by the bulk bag is generally the way to get the best price.

For those who are time constrained, it's essential to prepare the delivery driver and drop-off area beforehand, to enable a very quick delivery. This involves providing clear instructions to the delivery driver, being aware of potential hazards, and providing a safe access point from the public highway or street. The last thing you want is for them to have to come to your house a second time, because it is not convenient and it will cost you extra money.

Getting the best price and some great service is always helpful for delivering a complete and successful project. That's why it's usual, but appreciated, to write a review about your purchase and the deliveries for future customers and the delivery driver as well.

1safe play bark nuggets

Summary

Building a fun and safe play area for your kids is fairly straightforward once you know what you need to cover. By following the guidelines and tips in this article, you should be ready to create a space that is safe, economical, natural and designed for children of the right age. With all of these issues in place, you will be able to provide your children endless benefits while having the peace of mind that you know they're playing in safety.

1rope swings above wood chip saftey surface

FAQs

What type of wood chips are best for playground?

Engineered wood fibre (EWF) mulch is the best option for playgrounds over wood play chip or playbark chips, although it is not commonly available in the United Kingdom. However, where it is easily accessible, it is easy to install and has a much lower initial cost than other mulch options. It is also completely free of hazardous chemicals.

Are wood chips safe for playground?

Wood chips are a safe option suitable for playgrounds when used in adequate depth; at least 15-30cm (12") depth is recommended for effective cushioning. Any less and you may have to make a prompt delivery of a child to the emergency room!

How do you lay wood chips in a garden play area?

For a home garden play area, lay wood chips 15-30cm (6-12") deep; for commercial play areas, which get more use, the depth should be increased to a minimum of 30cm (12") for optimal safety. For more details, please click here.

Is wood chip or bark better for play areas?

Given that play chip is generally more durable than bark play chip, we recommend it, especially for heavily trafficked play areas. However, there is not much between them and therefore the final choice usually comes down to aesthetic preference.

How do you make a woodchip play area?

Creating a woodchip play area requires marking out the area, preparing the ground, defining the edges, laying down a membrane, and adding the desired amount of wood chips. Jump to the answer here.

There are many wonderful types of wood chippings products available for your play area or mulching needs. Check them out!

About the author 

Ben Parrot is a landscape gardener and amateur geologist. He is the founder of Outdoor Aggregates, with the mission to create the first encyclopaedia for decorative aggregates. From natural stone through to decorative bark, these aggregates are critical to garden and landscape design, universally.

The problem: There isn't any place where all the different types of decorative landscaping materials and construction aggregates can be found, nor are the specifications of each type readily available. So, enriched by his extensive experience, and inspired by the timeless elegance and raw beauty of stone and rock, etched by nature's artistry over millennia, Outdoor Aggregates was born.