Throwing Shade on Play – Part One


We know that kids need to get outside more. The last thing we need is for parents to be concerned about UV exposure and cancer. Here’s a comment I recently received:

“I have been doing research into playground design since I now spend a lot of my time there with my 2-year-old daughter. One thing I have been confused about is why, so few playgrounds have shade built in – either through trees or shade structures or the equipment itself. I live in Santa Monica, CA, and it’s rare to find a park with shade even though its sunny most of the year here. I emailed the city parks & rec department, and they said it’s in the plan, but they don’t know when it will be added. But to be fair, I think a lack of shade is common for playgrounds in many cities. I know your specialty is playground design, but I was curious if you have any thoughts on why shade isn’t built from the start in many playgrounds. Is it just cost? Are there any efforts you’ve seen that are successful in getting shade added – perhaps grants or partnerships?”

As is the case with many concerns about safety, the predictable response to this is likely to be ineffectual and counterproductive. Here’s why.

Yes, shade is often not part of playgrounds because it is expensive. The primary driver of the high cost is the wind load requirements that mandate engineering that ensures structural integrity for winds of 100 mph or more. As the size of the area covered goes up, the structural requirements increase as the square. This means such strictures tend to barely cover the play structure.  This small coverage means that such shade is only useful when the sun is directly overhead, and when children are on the structure itself. These factors mean that this expensive “solution” may provide only a few minutes of protection per child. So, what’s a parent to do?

The first step in any risk management program is to access the exposure. That starts with genetics. Fair-skinned people have a much higher risk of skin cancer than those with darker complexions. A family history of skin cancer is another red flag. For the ultimate information, DNA tests can spot children most at risk.

Of course, there is always sunblock, but there are limitations on how effective this can be since we generally don’t apply enough or as frequently as we should. Lotions above SPF 30 provide very little added protection. As with so many issues in child-rearing, there is no silver bullet solution.

By no means do I want to be seen as belittling the concern or suggesting not to take the issue seriously. While world-wide activism has fixed the hole in the ozone layer, climate change is making sun exposure an increasing concern primarily due to hotter days. Until we fix this problem, we will have to adapt.

The first step is to add a wide brim hat to children’s play apparel. This is a good choice for all children as the face, neck, and ears are the most often exposed and hence to the most frequent site for adult cancer.  For sensitive children or longer exposures, parents should consider sun suits that are designed for snorkeling.

As I have been researching the apparel option, I have been unable to find a line of UV protective children’s clothing that is made with sustainable fabrics such as bamboo, hemp, and organic cotton. This lack of climate-adapted clothing presents a real business opportunity as it will not be too long before there is a huge switch away from synthetic fabrics, which produce thousands of micro-plastic particles with every washing.

This notion of dressing children appropriately for the emerging weather conditions may seem a bit kooky, but I can assure you it will happen sooner than later. As with other adaptation, we have to make, taking positive action is a step in the right direction.

Childhood exposure to ultraviolet radiation and harmful skin effects: Epidemiological evidence.

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