By Liz Szabo
New York City, NY (June 6, 2011)- Kids flocked to two redesigned New York City playgrounds last year to check out the shiny, stainless-steel climbing domes. But they reacted with more than squeals of delight. On sunny days, the climbing domes quickly got hotter than a frying pan. Kids scalded their hands, prompting park officials to install a tent over the dome in Union Square and to remove the domes in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The uproar highlights an issue that makes many parents as hot as a metal slide: a lack of shade at most of the places that children spend their summers.
At stake is far more than playtime comfort. Though children have always dealt with the summer sun, research now shows a growing risk of the most serious form of skin cancer. And sun exposure is greatest during childhood. Shade does more than protect children’s skin. A growing number of advocates say it also may help kids stay more active.
At a time when one-third of children are obese or overweight, a movement is growing to provide more shade at playgrounds, parks and pools, both to reduce future cancer risk and promote exercise, says Richard Louv, co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, a non-profit that encourages kids to get outside. “It’s right under the surface, but the momentum has been increasing,” says Colleen Doyle of the American Cancer Society. “To really boost a movement like this, it’s going to take parents speaking up.”
Across the USA, communities are working to make school play areas greener, with more trees, shrubs and natural shade, Louv says. In Northern California, a grass-roots group called Canopy is planting 1,000 trees over the next four years at inner-city schools in East Palo Alto, says development director Elliott Wright. He was able to enlist corporate giants such as Microsoft, Yahoo and REI to donate money and labor for a project in which volunteers planted 200 trees at schools. “You go to a playground where there is no shade, and you just can’t be out there on a hot day,” says Sid Espinosa, director of citizenship at Microsoft and mayor of Palo Alto. “It’s not good for your health.”
Trees get a boost
More trees would help, Espinosa says. Tree leaves absorb about 95% of ultraviolet radiation, in addition to improving air quality by producing oxygen, according to the National Recreation and Park Association. Trees have psychological benefits, as well, Louv says. “What you see when you go to school campuses in East Palo Alto is concrete,” says Espinosa. “Many of them look like prison yards. It’s clearly not a good environment for kids to be playing in, let alone learning in.”
Because trees typically take a decade or more to grow large enough to provide significant shade, many schools are building shade structures instead. Michelle Thornsberry, a mother of two, helped lead efforts to build a sun shade over the playground at her children’s school, Stevenson Elementary in Burbank, Calif. Building the 30-foot by 40-foot shade structure, completed last month, cost more than $25,000, Thornsberry says. A second, smaller structure will cost $14,000.
To help out, the American Academy of Dermatology and the non-profit Shade Foundation, started by a melanoma survivor, have awarded grants to build shade structures for several years.
These groups can’t come close to meeting the demand for shade. The Shade Foundation has given away all of its shade-structure grants for 2011 and hasn’t yet found a sponsor for next year’s grants, says executive director Sue Gorham. The dermatology group last year received 500 applications for its $8,000 grants, says Jeff Ashley, a Burbank dermatologist who sponsored Stevenson Elementary’s application. The group could award only 37.
One bad sunburn carries risks
The cost of failing to protect kids from the sun is also high, notes Thornsberry, whose brother developed melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – at age 27. Most people get the bulk of their sun exposure in childhood, says Patricia Witman, a mother of four and chief of dermatology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun also can contribute to cataracts.
Even one blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence can double the risk of developing melanoma later in life, says the Skin Cancer Foundation. Several studies show that melanoma rates are rising in young adults. And a 2005 study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that melanoma rates in people under 20 rose 3% a year between 1973 and 2001. Although scientists can’t yet explain the increase, it’s possible that changes in the ozone layer, which allow more cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation to reach Earth, could contribute to the problem, says Timothy Turnham of the Melanoma Research Foundation.
The American Academy of Pediatrics instructs parents to keep babies out of direct sunlight until they’re 6 months old. Doctors say older children should “shun the sun” and “seek the shade” between the peak sunburn hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. With so little shade available, kids often have no place to go – except indoors. Spending the day inside, in front of a TV or playing video games, is hardly healthy, Doyle says. A typical kid already spends 81/2 to 13 hours a day with media, found a June study from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Communities need to start removing barriers to exercise, Doyle says.
Spending all day indoors isn’t really an option for those living in small homes, particularly city dwellers such as Lance Somerfeld, who shares an 800-square-foot apartment on New York’s Upper East Side with his wife and rambunctious 2-year-old son. Somerfeld is a volunteer coordinator for a local parenting group, the NYC Dads Group. He says he considers the position of the sun, and availability of shade, before planning any outings with children.
Somerfeld says one of his favorite destinations illustrates the strange state of modern playgrounds. The Ancient Playground, located in Central Park and adjacent to the Egyptian exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is thoughtfully designed, filled with pyramids that let kids imagine they’re back in the time of the pharaohs. Its front gate carries a warning sign, however, telling parents that play surfaces can become dangerously hot.
New York kids may soon get some relief. The city is about halfway through its goal of planting 1 million trees over 10 years, says Nancy Prince, deputy chief for design at New York’s parks and recreation department. A city law requires builders who cut down trees to “make restitution,” Prince says, by planting several young trees for each mature tree that’s lost.
Landscape architects have only recently begun to think about incorporating shade in children’s play areas, Prince says. Most playground planners “just don’t think about shade,” says architect Robin Moore, director of the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University, which aims to integrate nature into playgrounds. Landscaping, typically added last after a new playground is built, is often the first expense to be cut if a project runs over budget, he says. “Here in North Carolina, there are more requirements for planting trees in parking lots than on playgrounds,” says Moore, co-director of a program called Preventing Obesity by Design. “It’s a big problem.”
Restoring shade isn’t as simple as it sounds, Espinosa says. From the perspective of a park or community center manager, trees mean extra work and money, he says. Pool managers don’t want trees near the water, for example, because they drop leaves, Espinosa says.
Finding space for trees around playground equipment can be tough, says Richard Dolesh, director of public policy at the National Recreation and Park Association.
For safety reasons, playgrounds need to include a 12-foot to 15-foot “fall zone” around swings and monkey bars, as well as adequate clearance above swings, he says. Plus, “trees produce leaves, and leaves can be a hassle for cleanup, a fire hazard and a source of insects. There are a lot of potential downsides to trees if you are unwilling to manage them. A playground designed in harmony with nature requires a lot of ongoing maintenance and care.”
Aging trees may even become a legal liability because branches can fall and cause damage, Dolesh says. When constructing a new playground, it’s often cheaper and easier to simply clear-cut the land, flatten it to an even grade and re-populate the area with small saplings, instead of trying to build around existing trees, he adds.
In inner cities, planting trees involves the extra cost of removing asphalt or concrete, Espinosa says. And in dry climates, schools may lack the extra funds to water and maintain trees. Despite these barriers, Canopy’s Carole Langston says groups such as hers are committed to making schools and playgrounds a little greener and cooler.
“There’s an old saying, that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago,” says Langston, an arborist and mother of three.
“The second-best time is today.”
USA Today- Shade: A weapon against skin cancer, childhood obesity
Trees at Playspaces