Hot Playgrounds and Children's Safety
Posted on 09/05/2023

Extreme heat and climate effects are a topic on many people's minds these days. In most instances, the future of extreme heat is talked about in terms of broad, sweeping environmental risks like increased droughts, struggling crops, and the need for more community-wide cooling shelters. Most of us haven't stopped to consider the impacts that extreme heat may have on our day-to-day lives, and for school-aged children, there is practically nothing more impactful day-to-day than school. While there are many ways that heat can impact a child's day at school, the outdoor play environment is an area of close focus, especially in our Eastern Washington climate. 

Children's playgrounds have always been spaces filled with laughter, fun, and adventure. However, as our climate changes, the risks associated with heat on playgrounds are becoming more noticeable. With an increase in hot weather events predicted due to climate change, it's essential to understand how rising temperatures can impact children's safety on playgrounds.  

BFHD's School Environmental Health & Safety Program and Environmental Planning, Climate Effects Programs are working with partners to investigate the risks posed by heat on playgrounds, explore the influence of climate change on these risks, and discuss practical steps that can be taken to mitigate the current heat and ensure children's well-being. One such partner is a local group, Kids for Urban Trees (K4UT).

READ: Media Release: Benton-Franklin Health District Teams Up with Kids for Urban Trees

K4UT is a group of elementary school students dedicated to fostering green spaces in urban communities. K4UT and BFHD are partnering in 2023 to collect data on heat and playgrounds, which K4UT will use to expand their impact by obtaining the Department of Natural Resources Urban and Community Forestry Grant. 

K4UT Partnership
(Erin Hockaday, Senior Manager for Surveillance & Investigation, Benton-Franklin with K4UT when they visited for a playground safety presentation)

The kids from K4UT, Alexis, Nirbhuy, and Quentin, have planted over 300 trees in Eastern Washington, and the group recently returned from Washington, DC, where they were presented with the Presidential Environmental Youth Award! This dynamic group of kids are passionate about the environment—the following are excerpts from an essay the K4UT kids submitted to BFHD to express their passion for ensuring that kids have a safe, cool place to play! 


Essay excerpts submitted by Kids for Urban Trees: 

Trees are highly recommended in playgrounds. Although others try to articulate that trees are not completely necessary, we think that trees help in many ways. We look forward to collaborating to spread the needed information on the importance of trees and tree planting.  

Why is adding trees to playgrounds important to Kids for Urban Trees? We care for kids! It's right there in the name! KIDS for Urban Trees. Trees can help provide physical activity! We have provided evidence of it! Kids like running through TREES more than the hot suburban heat. Kids can spend hours playing with seeds and leaves that come from trees. Also, parks aren't used that often without trees. If you don't plant trees at your park, there is no place to hang out and take a break, sort of like a race with no finish line. If there's no finish line, they'll eventually stop running entirely and lose all strength and will to run, just like a playground with no trees. If there are no trees, kids aren't motivated to do physical activities like tag, monkey bars, running in general, etc. 

BFHD is excited to support these amazing kids in pursuing safer play spaces! Below, you can read more about the risks of high heat on playgrounds and adjustments that can be made to battle this problem.  


High temperatures can pose several risks to children using playgrounds: 

1. Burns: Playground equipment, particularly metal slides and surfaces, can become scorching hot under the sun, increasing the risk of burns when children come into contact with them. According to a National Program for Playground Safety report NPPS, playground equipment can reach temperatures of approximately 189°F, a temperature which can burn a child's skin in about three seconds. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission reminds us that burns can be a risk even in mild weather as long as equipment is exposed to sunlight for an extended time. With the increasing frequency of hot weather predicted, burns will become more of a risk. 

2. Heat-Related Illnesses: Children are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heatstroke due to their smaller, developing bodies. Longer exposure to heat can lead to dehydration, fatigue, dizziness, and, in severe cases, heatstroke. 

3. Air Quality: Higher temperatures can increase air pollution and stimulate plants to increase the production and release of pollen. Both an increase in pollution and a lengthening of pollen season leading to poor air quality around playgrounds can cause respiratory issues and cause conditions like asthma to flare up.  

4. Reduced Physical Activity: Extreme heat can discourage children from engaging in physical activity, limiting the benefits of outdoor play for their physical and mental development. 

How can you prevent heat-related risks on playgrounds? 

  1. Teach kids safe heat behaviors! Kids can be taught to recognize the warning signs of heat illness and take time for breaks and water if they're feeling ill. Teaching your child to put on a hat or sunscreen is a great step, too! 
  2. Monitor the heat! Monitoring the temperature before you go out is crucial. If the heat index is high, waiting until a cooler time to play may be the safest approach. Schools and institutions can consider heat-warning systems to be sure everyone gets the message. 
  3. Acclimatization: Slowly getting used to the heat is crucial at the beginning of each heat season or during heat waves. Many heat-related illnesses happen because the person was not "used" to the heat. 
  4. Design Considerations: Installing shade sails, canopies, or trees can provide refuge from direct sunlight. Reflective materials, natural materials, and siting the play space on the North side of a building can help. Cooling systems like misting systems can also be installed to reduce ambient heat. BFHD's School Environmental Health & Safety program reviews plans for new schools and has the opportunity to work with designers on these considerations before schools are built. 

As our world grapples with the consequences of climate change, it's crucial to prioritize the safety and well-being of our children, even in seemingly innocent places like playgrounds. By understanding the risks of heat on playgrounds, recognizing the influence of climate change, and taking practical steps to reduce the heat around us, we can ensure that playgrounds remain joyful and safe spaces for children to explore, learn, and play, regardless of the challenges posed by a warming world!