Sand Alternatives for Playgrounds & Sandboxes: [Dedicated Guide]

Sand is great for sandbox and playgrounds because it is proven to be a safe surface for children to play on.

However, no material is ultimately perfect and there are some potential downsides to using sand. 

In this post, we will explore some of the best sand alternatives to sand for playgrounds and sandboxes.

While doing so we will not only look if these materials can provide a safe surface for children to play on but also if they are environmentally friendly and economical.

Before we get to the best sand alternatives, let’s first try to understand what makes sand a good material for playgrounds and sandboxes.

Because only then can we find better materials that can replicate the benefits of sand.

What Makes the Sand a Good Material for Playgrounds and Sandboxes?

There are a few great reasons why sand is a good material for playgrounds and sandboxes:


Sand if sourced responsibly and tested for its chemical content should be safe for children to play on.

Sand for use in playgrounds and sandboxes must be sourced from rivers and beaches. They cannot come from quarries as the sand may contain harmful substances.

Sand sourced from quarries contains a high amount of crystalline silica which is known to cause lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses.

Also, quarry sand is likely to contain tremolite a form of asbestos that is also harmful to human health.

Therefore, if you are buying sand for a playground or sandbox make sure to source it from a reputable supplier and ask for test results to ensure that the sand is free of tremolite and crystalline silica.

Most sand used for children’s playgrounds and sandboxes is also washed to remove any debris and other impurities that may be harmful. 

Playground sand is also checked to make sure that there are no sharp objects or other hazards that can injure children.

Finally, it is also tested for the presence of chemicals, and microorganisms at a qualified lab and certified safe for children to play on.

Doesn’t attract animals

Sand is crushed rock and is not a food source for animals. Therefore, it doesn’t attract animals unless the neighbor’s dog likes to dig in your sandbox for its certain need.

However, I have seen some resources recommending the use of certain grains like rice, lentils, and oats as a sand substitute for playgrounds and sandboxes.

Although grains may have physical similarities to sand, using grains for playgrounds or sandboxes to replace sand is not a good idea. 

Because they will attract birds, ants, termites, rodents, and other animals as they are a food source.

And once these animals start to frequent your playground or sandbox, it becomes a health and safety hazard for the children playing on it.

Moreover, grains lose their integrity after being exposed to rain and weather, which can quickly defeat the purpose of using them as a sand replacement. I have also never seen rice, lentil, or oat being used as a playground or sandbox material before. 


Sand is a durable material and can last for many years when used in playgrounds or sandboxes.

This is because it does not corrode and also does not lose its shape or texture over time. Therefore, it doesn’t require much maintenance and can be left as it is for years without any issues.

Also, sand doesn’t lose its shape, color, or texture over time, especially under the sun’s UV rays.

This is a great feature of sand because a lot of materials that may be offered as a sand alternative may lose their original texture, shape, or appeal over time due to sun exposure.

More importantly, some materials may create toxic compounds if they are left in direct sunlight for a long period of time.

Particle Qualities

Sand is a great material for playgrounds and sandboxes because it has the perfect particle qualities. 

Although it is a solid material it behaves like a liquid when it is poured. This makes it easy to pour and mold into any shape that is needed.

Additionally, sand does not stick to skin and clothes which makes it easy to clean up after playing.

Materials with larger particles than sand may be risky for children since they can be swallowed by children and can cause choking hazards. Therefore, using food sources like beans or corn as a sand replacement can do more harm than good.  

Children are curious and love to explore their surroundings. They can put anything in their mouths, and that’s why it is important to use materials in playgrounds and sandboxes that are safe and will not harm them. 

Additionally, sand has an almost perfect round particle shape, which makes it safe for children to play with.

It does not have any sharp edges that could cause injuries. Materials that aren’t round, but sharp or jagged, such as angular rocks, can cause injuries to children if they are playing with them. 


Sand is one of the most affordable materials for playgrounds and sandboxes. It is readily available, easy to transport, and can be used in a variety of ways.

There are some materials that can be used as sand alternatives but they may not be as affordable as sand. For example, some engineered materials may provide similar benefits to sand but may be more expensive. 

What are the best sand alternatives for playgrounds and sandboxes?

So far, we have looked at the reasons why sand is a great material for playgrounds and sandboxes.

We have mentioned it is non-toxic, durable, easy to clean, and has perfect particle qualities. In addition, it is one of the most affordable materials available.

The below table shows alternatives to sand for playgrounds and sandboxes.

CorkNatural product made from cork oak treeMay be expensive, and not as widely availableMay not be as natural, and some types may not be safe
PlasticMan-made material in a variety of colors and texturesVersatile, comes in different colors and textures, durableNeeds a containment system, regular checks for foreign objects
Rubber MulchMade of recycled rubber tires, environmentally friendlyDoes not degrade, and remains a safe play surface for childrenMay be expensive, not as aesthetically pleasing
Styrofoam PeanutsLightweight, durable, non-toxic alternative to sandAffordable, can fill in spaces between playground equipmentNot aesthetically pleasing
Wood ChipsNatural material often used as mulch in gardens and landscapesNatural look and feel, renewable resource, abundantly availableMay not be as durable, need to choose untreated wood
Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF)Made of various hardwoods and/or softwoods with impact-absorbing propertiesInexpensive, natural-looking, meets safety requirementsInexpensive, natural-looking, meet safety requirements

Now let’s take a look at some of the best alternatives to sand that can be used in playgrounds and sandboxes.


mushroom shaped corks

Cork is a natural product made from the cork oak tree. It is extremely lightweight offering a great cushioning effect. It is also non-toxic, fire-resistant, antimicrobial, and resistant to rot and insects. 

Cork can easily be shaped into many different forms. This is a great feature because it can be customized to fit the specific needs of any playground or sandbox. 

You can use cork to cover playground surfaces and create a safe environment for children to play.

Additionally, you can use cork in the shape of smaller cork balls, blocks, ramps, and other playground accessories. You can create pools of cork water by using cork balls in a sandbox.


Children Playing among Plastic Balls

Plastic is a versatile material that comes in a variety of colors and textures and can be used for playgrounds and sandboxes.

Although it is not as natural as sand or cork, it is a man-made material that can be considered safe for children to play with if it is made of non-toxic materials and designed with children’s safety in mind.

Plastic balls or bricks can be used to create a sandbox pool. You can also use it to create molded shapes and structures that are safe for children to play with. It is important to note that not all plastics are created equal. 

If you are buying plastic material (like small plastic balls) to use as a sand alternative, be sure to buy the right type.

Look for plastic that is designed specifically for children’s playgrounds and sandboxes. This type of plastic will be non-toxic and safe for children to play with.

Rubber Mulch

Black rubber granules

Rubber mulch is an excellent sand alternative for playgrounds and sandboxes. It is made of recycled rubber tires, so it is environmentally friendly. 

Always remember anything on the ground is likely to be in a child’s mouth. So always keep an eye on children when they are playing.

Products like wood mulch and engineered wood fiber (EWF) disintegrate and degrade. As a result, the cost and upkeep of a playground made of wood mulch or engineered wood fiber (EWF) rise over time.

Furthermore, as these materials break down and degrade, the critical fall height protection they provide diminishes.

Rubber mulch, on the other hand, does not break down and degrade. Its physical properties remain unchanged over time, providing a safe play surface for children now and well into the future.

Styrofoam Packing Peanuts

styrofoam peanuts

Styrofoam packing peanuts are known by many names including packing peanuts, foam popcorn, and packing noodles. 

They are primarily used to protect delicate items during shipping. When they are compressed they interlock but quickly return to their original shape when pressure is released.

They are often made of expanded polystyrene foam in different colors and shapes.

Styrofoam packing peanuts are lightweight, durable, and non-toxic alternatives to sand.

They can be used to fill in spaces between playground equipment, making them less likely to cause injuries if a child falls. You can also use them to cover the ground in a sandbox.

They are not as aesthetically pleasing as some of the other materials mentioned but they are an affordable and safe option for playgrounds and sandboxes.

Wood Chips

Wood chip playground in Utah

Wood chips are a natural material that is often used as mulch in gardens and landscapes. However, why not use it as a sand alternative in playgrounds and sandboxes? 

Wood chips are a great choice because they have a natural look and feel, are durable, and are a renewable resource. They are also abundantly available and affordable.

When choosing wood chips as a sand alternative, be sure to select those untreated with chemical preservatives. Untreated wood chips are a safe and natural choice for children to play with.

Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF)

Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF) is a common material used in playgrounds and landscapes. It is made of various hardwoods and/or softwoods and has perfect impact-absorbing properties.

EWF is an inexpensive, natural-looking material that meets Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.

It also exceeds the recommendations of the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) and American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) requirements. 

Since EWF is a loose-fill material, it is important to use a containment system to keep the material in place.

It should be regularly checked for foreign objects that may get mixed in with the material so that it stays safe for children to play with.

Know the Laws & Regulations in Your Area

When looking for a sand alternative, it is important to be aware of the laws and regulations in your area.

You cannot just use any material that you want in a public playground or sandbox just because you think it is a good alternative.

There are specific materials that have been approved for use by the government and you need to check with your local authorities to see what is allowed.

Some materials, like beans, are not safe for children if they are ingested and can cause choking hazards. Other materials, like wood chips, may not be safe if they contain harmful chemicals that could be ingested by children.

It is important to do your research and make sure the material you are using is safe for children before you use it in a playground or sandbox.

In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) governs playground surfaces and requires that they be accessible to all children.

The ADA specifies what kind of surface is acceptable for playgrounds, and that’s why sand is such a popular choice. ADA requirements are not optional but are enforced by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) also sets standards for playground surfaces.

CPSC recommends using sand as a surface material because it meets the requirements for wheelchair access, has slip resistance when wet, and provides cushioning.

Some tips for safe sandbox play


There are a variety of safe and affordable sand alternatives to choose from when looking for a surface material for your playground or sandbox.

Some good sand alternatives are cork, rubber mulch, styrofoam packing peanuts, engineered wood fiber, and play pellets.

All of these materials have their own benefits and drawbacks, so don’t expect them to be perfect in every way.

It is important to be aware of the laws and regulations in your area before selecting material and to make sure that the material you choose is safe for children to play with.

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