Why Woodchips?

I’ve noticed that at almost every park & play ground there are woodchips scattered in areas where a child might fall down, like under the swings. This is somewhat a new thing. When I was young there was sand or dirt, or even cement under the swings (and we never lost one kid to serious injury!). So what’s the deal? Are woodchips supposed to be safer to fall in than sand? I would think falling onto woodchips would actually hurt like hell! What’s the Straight Dope on this?

You may not have personally experienced or witnessed an injury, but it certainly happens. (I grew up with concrete and asphalt playgrounds myself. My brother broke his wrist falling from a slide in elementary school.) The more cushioning a surface provides, the less risk of serious injury in a fall.


This link from the CPSC gives suggestions for an acceptable playground surface.

In fact, I think it’s criminally stupid to put cement under a childs swing set. But why are woodchips being used instead of sand? Don’t they cause a lot of scrapes and deep slivers as opposed to sand?

There were woodchips on my school’s playground back in 1972, so I don’t think they are a new idea. We called the jungle gym area, “the bark box”. Sadly it is no more.

Wood chips are easier to rake back into place than sand, I imagine, and they don’t need to be replaced as often. Sand tends to get carried away in kids’ shoes, hair and clothing, and would need to be replaced frequently, or it would just leave the packed-down dirt underneath.

I imagine also that even though wood chips create splinter hazards, sand presents a hazard of eye injury and being ingested by the li’l nippers. Wood chips are cleaner, and may also be cheaper in some instances. Clean, sifted sand ain’t cheap.

Sand just encourages the smoking kids its like standing in a giant ashtray. Woodchips do the opposite.

Here’s what I think:

It’s possible they’re recycling chewed up Christmas trees, fallen branches and other wooden biomass that would otherwise end up in a landfill or incinerator – two very ungreen options these days.

It’s free, it works, it looks good and you never have to worry about your kids emptying their sand-filled sneakers on your living room rug.

Where I live they love to give away mulch, compost and even zoo manure to private individuals, so my guess is that many municipalities are also swimming in surplus biomass. (No wisecracks here, please. Too easy.)

The kids don’t get as dirty.

I would think that it would be hard to get a splinter considering they move around

I think the issue isn’t how the surface feels or how messy it is. The issue is avoiding the risk of death and injury. Deaths are indeed rare (only “about 15 children die each year as a result of playground equipment-related incidents”) but are tragic. Injuries are very common and expensive: “Each year, about 200,000 children are treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms for playground equipment-related injuries - an estimated 148,000 of these injuries involve public playground equipment and an estimated 51,000 involve home playground equipment.” “Most of the injuries are the result of falls. These are primarily falls to the ground below the equipment, but falls from one piece of equipment to another are also reported. Most of the deaths are due to strangulations or falls.”

The quotes above are from The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) site cited by robinh. The CPSC goes on:

  • Asphalt and concrete are unacceptable. They do not have any shock absorbing properties. Similarly, grass and turf should not be used. Their ability to absorb shock during a fall can be reduced considerably through wear and environmental conditions.

"Certain loose-fill surfacing materials are acceptable, such as the types and depths shown in the table:

============================================================Fall Height In Feet From Which A Life Threatening
Head Injury Would Not Be Expected

Type of Material 6" Depth 9" Depth 12" Depth

Double Shredded Bark Mulch 6 10 11
Wood Chips 7 10 11
Fine Sand 5 5 9
Fine Gravel 6 7 10

  • Certain manufactured synthetic surfaces also are acceptable; however, test data on shock absorbing performance should be requested from the manufacturer."

So the answer is: chips and bark absorb shock better than does sand.

Here’s something to ponder: Here in St. Petersburg they are replacing all of the former wood-chipped playgrounds with ground up rubber tires. I suppose they are possibly the best surface because they are really cushy, have no splinters (a minor concern anyway), and are very clean.

Also, ever notice how hard sand can become when it is wet? If the sand is packed down and it rains, it is almost as hard as having no padding at all.

I like the smell of woodchips and sawdust … I put them in my underwear.

I, too, had tanbark in my school playground in the early '80s. Although the wood chips today seem different - smaller, cleaner I think. The bark was rather messy, and splintery, so they switched to pea gravel. It was dusty, but you slid in it a lot easier than the bark. Personally I had one instance of an attempted gymnastic feat that, uh, didn’t result favorably for me. The gravel just scraped me up; I don’t think the bark would’ve been as nice. I think the woodchips like today would’ve done as well.

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What do they do with the steel wires from the belts?They surely can’t leave them in the ground up product.
Maybe it is a remanufactured product???

Apparently, not all tires are impregnated with steel belts. The rubber in the playgrounds would lead me to believe that old tires are simply washed and then thrown in a chipper device. The tires at the playground are reduced to little chunks of rubber about one cubic centimeter in volume No steel, though.

I think rubber chips are better than wood chips for playgrounds. I would expect that they form a more resilient (i.e., safer) surface (although I haven’t seen any data), they don’t get matted down, and they decompose more slowly.

That has got to be uncomfortable to walk around with.

The local school tore up the asphalt and put in bark chips a few years back. They were also considering some of the various products specially made for the job but figured the replacement cost several years down the road was too expensive. Wood chips got the job done with the smallest cost.

Wood chips also give you better drainage than sand after it rains. We built a swingset for our kids. Well, I should say, my husband did. I just kept the kids out of the way while he did it. The space underneath is boxed in with landscape fabric on the bottom (to prevent weeds), then sand, gravel, then woodchips. We solved the problem of the divot that usually forms under the swings by laying a strip of rubber flooring (left over from a friend’s barn project) there.

Sand also attracts stinky cat poop.

In the 70s my brother and I were playing on the playground of our apartment complex. The play ground was concrete covered with that fake green plastic “grass.” My brother fell down and knocked out his 2 front teeth, and had to wear fake teeth for years, until his adult teeth grew. If that would happen today, people would sue for a million dollars.

I have (what may be) the unique distinction of falling down on both surfaces. I can say from personal experience that wood chips are FAR better to fall on than sand.

In both cases, I was flung off of a merry-go-round at high speeds (I liked to dangle my feet over the edge). Pulling out one or two splinters is much better than picking sand and gravel out of your knees and elbows. It still makes me shudder to think about it.

A poster above stated that rubber may be preferred to wood chips. This is not the case. When you fall a certain height on a surface, the amount of injury is dependent on two factors—the change in momentum and the contact time. Anything that is bouncy causes a bigger change in momentum vertically than something that is non-bouncy. Further, a smaller contact time results in a larger overall impact force. Rubber is probably the worst thing that you can fall on from a great height, as both the momentum change and contact time work against your favor.