Throwing Shade on Play – Part Two

kids in desert

Here is our reader’s response to Throwing Shade on Play – Part One

Hi Jay,

Thanks for sending me the draft of the blog post. I appreciate your points on mitigating sun exposure with sunscreen and protective clothing, and I agree these can help.

However, a primary issue I have with a lack of shade at playgrounds is the direct sun causes little kids (and caregivers) to face heat exhaustion, which then limits play. In an ideal day, I would be able to take my child and play outdoors for 2-4hrs/day. But even when dressed with hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, spf rated clothing, and armed with plenty of water, we both end up weary within an hour of being at the park. Not to mention sometimes the equipment becomes too hot for kids to touch.

Sure, play can be achieved inside in an air-conditioned house or indoor playgym. But these are usually much smaller and limit how much kids can run around, climb and get the sensory feedback of interacting with nature.

I see shade as promoting the following:

  • protecting kids and caregivers from UV and sunburns
  • letting kids play longer outside and interact with nature
  • keeping the equipment from being too hot to play on
  • prolonging the life of the equipment by protecting it from the elements
  • attracting more people to parks by providing a cool space to gather

I sympathize that following building codes are challenging and expensive, I used to work in construction for the federal government. Adding a standard describing how much direct sun is acceptable during the peak sun hours may be helpful, but it could sound like extra overhead to a parks department or builder.

Would it be possible to incentivize the inclusion of shade structures somehow? Longer warranties on play equipment that is protected from the elements? Matching funds for playgrounds that have shade from health departments or local hospitals?

It’s definitely a challenging issue to build cities with shade, even outside of playgrounds. 99% Invisible did a great show on why shade is so hard to find in the city of LA which you might find interesting:

Thanks for the discussion,



Nisha raises many valid points. Let’s look for some solutions.

The first and most obvious idea is simple – TREES. Trees not only provide shade, but they also drop the ambient environmental temperate by 10 to 20 degrees. They even are able to drop their leaves in the winter when we want sun exposure. Chosen carefully they are adapted to the local climate. And let’s not forget that they can offer climbing opportunities and many other play benefits.

For too long, have maintenance departments, risk managers, and attorneys ruled playground design and facilities. I suppose we can blame the parents of injured children for bringing the lawsuits that resulted in the sterilization of play spaces. Rather, I contend that it is a lack of universal health care that forced families to seek a way to pay for injuries, and that fight continues to this day. All I’ll say on the matter is that voting matters.

I can attest to the value of trees on playgrounds from experience at Magical Bridge Playground, where the founders, Olenka Villarreal and Jill Asher, insisted on bringing in mature oaks at great expense. I can attest to the fact that these additions addressed the comfort issues that Nisha raises.

Magical Bridge Foundation

The problem with trees is, of course, that the ASTM playground safety standards require ridiculous amounts of fall zones around equipment. Of course, we could use trees as integrated structural elements. Oh, wait. We can’t do that because those pesky standards mandate engineering standards that can’t be realistically achieved with trees. Never mind that treehouses have been part of children’s play from forever.

In a recent post on this blog, Barefoot Playgrounds, I discussed the issue of shade. California Education Code now requires shade on playgrounds. Unfortunately, these have not made a significant improvement as both the placement and size requirements are insufficient to the need.

wt_large shade

I hope that I can work with a client in the near future to use a shade system that is common in nurseries that is inexpensive. Using shade cloth that allows the wind to flow through reduces the structural requirements quite a bit. I’d also like to install a misting system to reduce the temperature as well. The only downside of this is one of aesthetics as these are anything but attractive.

This discussion has brought up many valid concerns that will become increasingly important as we continue to adapt to climate change. Even in this belief overview, we can see that there are interesting possibilities that we can explore. That may require some changes in code, standards, and maintenance requirements, but these are things that can be changed when we begin to adopt the idea of creating play ecosystems.

Please, join the conversation and add your ideas and concerns here. Visit us at Constructive Play Design.


One thought on “Throwing Shade on Play – Part Two

  1. “…I contend that it is a lack of universal health care that forced families to seek a way to pay for injuries..” – This is a great thesis that I’ve never considered before.

    And YES on trees. We’ve used a lot of physical shade structures before, and they have a place (especially here in Arizona), but all things being equal we’d rather rely on a “playground in the grove” solution.


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