When Natalie Reeder's two children used to play in their backyard on summer afternoons, the scorching Mesa, Arizona, sun drove them back in the house within ten minutes. They could feel the burning-hot plastic of their playset right through their shorts, so they started going outside only in the early morning hours. Then one day, Reeder noticed a shade cloth covering a neighbor's patio, and she had a brainstorm. Her husband bought some Easy Gardener sunscreen fabric for $78 at The Home Depot and stretched it over poles on a 12- by 40-foot section of their yard. "That first day we had the structure, the kids played outside for an hour and a half," Reeder says. "We can all stay out a lot longer now without getting burned or overheated. And my sister, who also has two kids, is always calling us to ask, 'Is it okay if we come hang out with you guys today?' because I'm the one who has shade."
Reeder's story is a good reminder of an easy step you can take this summer that will enhance your outdoor time and, more important, help protect your child's skin: Seek shade. Although your family should always use sunscreen, staying in shady areas can reduce your child's overall exposure to ultraviolet radiation by up to 75 percent, according to a study in the Medical Journal of Australia. The more ways you block the sun, the better. Having five sunburns over a lifetime doubles your chances of developing melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, while having just one blistering burn in childhood more than doubles the risk. So smart sun protection now is absolutely essential.
In Australia, which has the world's highest skin-cancer rate, shade is a key component of a national campaign to reduce the risk of developing it, and many public pools, sports facilities, and playgrounds have been covered. Across the United States, too, community activists have lobbied school and park officials to create shade at playgrounds. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) believes shade is so important that it awards grants to more than 30 organizations every year so that they can build shade structures over their outdoor play areas.
After talking to dermatologists, horticulturists, and other experts, we've found more than a dozen ways to protect your family with shade.
Some of the prettiest, most effective sources are trees, shrubs, and plants. If you live in an area without mature trees, this may not seem like a viable option, but with a little patience and time, it's not hard, experts say. Their best advice:
These range from adjustable umbrellas that fit onto your baby's stroller to huge fabric sails you can extend over your backyard. Look for these key features:
Truthfully, it's not easy. Large shade structures cost an average of $35,000, so chances are you'll still have to do some fund-raising or lobbying of your elected officials. Peter Christoff, a Las Vegas community activist, says he spent five years preaching the importance of shade until the Las Vegas City Council came around. Christoff and the experts at KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit devoted to saving play, explain how to get shade for your play space.
Sound like a lot of work? No doubt. But with persistence, the payoff can be huge. Three years ago, largely in response to Christoff's efforts, the city of Las Vegas spent $1.2 million to install 60 shade structures in 40 existing parks. "It all started with one citizen who was very, very vocal and who initiated the charge," says Larry Haugsness, the city's director of operation and management. Since the canopies went up, more children than ever are using the parks -- and their parents can rest easy knowing their children have one more layer of protection against the sun's dangerous rays.
When students at Wallace A. Smith Elementary School, in Ooltewah, Tennessee, used to go out for recess, they often complained about the heat, says assistant principal Sharon Dodds: "We had no shade whatsoever. It can get really hot here in August and September, and on some days we couldn't even take the children outside." At the same time, a faculty member was diagnosed with skin cancer and she expressed concerns about monitoring students outdoors. The school's PTA decided to apply for one of the AAD's Shade Structure grants and received it in 2009. The grant helped pay for a 26-by-26-foot shade structure that covers some of the play equipment as well as a grassy area. It's made a big difference, Dodds says. The shaded area is about 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the playground, and the school nurse reports that fewer students are getting overheated. Teachers even use the area as an outdoor classroom. But it's the kids who really love it: "It''s much more comfortable," says Cooper Case, who's 10. "Our teachers used to say, 'It's too hot to go out today.' Now we pretty much get to go outside every day."
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Parents magazine.
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