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Kids can spend more time outdoors when provided with shade, study finds

A Black woman talks to a Black child as he plays outside.
Kimberly Paynter
Malaika Felts is the owner of Malaika’s Childcare in Philadelphia.

During a reprieve from the region’s recent heat wave, children played with hula hoops and climbed a jungle gym in the backyard of Malaika’s Childcare in Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.

Outdoor playtime can reduce stress, improve motor skills and produce vitamin D. However, during hot summer months, outdoor playtime can become less enjoyable — and dangerous.

Young children are less able to regulate their body temperature than adults, and are more vulnerable to overheating. High temperatures can also worsen air quality, and impact a child’s developing lungs.

Day care owner Malaika Felts said an awning attached to her day care and home offers some relief. But as the sun moves, she’s forced to bring the kids indoors.

“After 11:30 [a.m.], 12 o’clock, it gets really hot,” Felts said.

However, a new study finds structures such as tents, or trees, may be an effective way to protect kids as they play and learn outdoors.

Children play outside at a daycare with shaded tent canopies.
Kimberly Paynter
Malaika’s Childcare in North Philadelphia participated in a study of shade structures as effective tools to protect children while they play outside.

Researchers from Pennsylvania nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment say shade can reduce surface temperatures, and significantly increase the amount of time kids can safely play outdoors.

“As climate change exacerbates heat disparities, these structures offer a simple yet effective solution to guard against overheating of children and staff during the summer months,” said researcher Lorna Rosenberg, the nonprofit’s Healthy Buildings Program Manager.

The region is facing increasing temperatures, which are projected to worsen because of climate change. High temperatures in cities such as Philadelphia are compounded by concrete and a lack of tree canopy.

Women for a Healthy Environment recruited eight day cares in Hunting Park, Point Breeze, Strawberry Mansion and Cobbs Creek — neighborhoods that are some of the most heat vulnerable in the city.

“[Children] don’t sweat quite as much as adults do, and they’re more vulnerable to heat issues,” Rosenberg said. “So, it’s better for them to be in shaded areas. And unfortunately, we don’t have as much shade structure as we would like in the city.”

Day care owners received pop-up tents and were asked to record temperatures in and out of the sun, and document time spent outside. The study, funded by the Philadelphia Regional Center for Children’s Environmental Health, found that shade reduced temperatures by an average of 6 degrees — increasing outdoor playtime by an average of 14 minutes.

Malaika Felts, who installed tents on her lawn as part of the study, said the extra time spent outdoors enhances her kids’ overall experience.

“It means a lot,” she said. “When they’re inside, they’re so confined. Being outdoors, they can be free. They can run, they can jump, they can climb, they can throw.”

Two women play pretend kitchen with two children under a pop-up tent.
Kimberly Paynter
Malaika Felts, owner of Malaika’s Childcare in Philadelphia, and Lorna Rosenberg, Healthy Buildings Program Manager of UPenn’s Women for a Healthy Environment play pretend kitchen under a pop-up tent.

Among the recommendations, the researchers advise day cares to install shade structures during early spring, monitor concrete temperatures and adjust play schedules accordingly, including scheduling playtime during cooler times of the day.

Experts say kids should wear sunscreen, hats and sunglasses when outdoors, and drink plenty of water. However, they should remain indoors during poor air quality and heat emergencies.

Rosenberg said in addition to tree-planting initiatives, she encourages the City of Philadelphia to consider ways to provide immediate shade, as children can’t wait for trees to grow to maturity.

“Kids, when they’re really hot and they’re playing outside on gym equipment or jungle gym equipment, they wind up hiding underneath the sliding boards to get out of the sun because there’s nowhere else to go,” she said. “And we don’t want that. We want to give them better protection.”

Read more from our partners, WHYY.