The best way to protect your family from the sun? Head for the shade. We've got lots of doable ideas.
Kids on playground
Credit: Chris Eckert

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.

Related Features:

Create Natural 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:

Child going down slide
Credit: Chris Eckert
  • For the fastest shade, try vines. Build an arbor or a pergola over your patio or part of your backyard, and then grow pink jasmine, wisteria, trumpet vine, or grapes on it, says Eric Liskey, a horticulturist and deputy editor at Parents' sister magazine Better Homes and Gardens. It doesn't have to be a pricey project; you can build a small one yourself for a few hundred dollars.
  • Ask local experts for advice. Eucalyptus, American linden, coast redwood, red maple, pin or red oak, and lacebark elm are all great shade-tree varieties, but whether they'll grow for you depends on where you live, Liskey says. Your best bet? Call a local nursery or an extension agent, a public employee who's an expert on agriculture and gardening, and ask which native trees thrive in your area. (Find your state's Cooperative Extension office at
  • Avoid "fast-growing" trees. Trees advertised that way, such as silver maple, poplar, and princess, are usually weak-wooded, so their limbs break off easily -- possibly putting children at risk, explains Michael Glassman, a landscape designer in Sacramento, California. They also tend to have shallow, invasive roots that can damage your patio or playset. Better trees take at least five to ten years to provide any significant overhead shade.
  • Block the afternoon sun pronto. Trees and large shrubs planted to the south and west of the areas where you spend time will provide coverage from the afternoon sun almost immediately, Glassman says. His favorite varieties include Chinese pistache, ginkgo, crape myrtle, golden raintree, fruitless olive, and bay laurel.

Related Features:

Buy Shade Makers

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:

Kid wearing sunglasses
Credit: Chris Eckert
  • It has a high sun-protection rating. Fabrics that have been lab-tested to determine how well they block both UVA and UVB rays are rated with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF), which indicates how much of the sun's radiation they absorb. A UPF of 50+ provides maximum protection, says Elizabeth Martin, M.D., a dermatologist in Hoover, Alabama. The UPF test is tedious, so some products may state their protective ability as a percentage rating. For example: "Blocks 70% of UV rays." In that case, you want a rating as close to 100 percent as possible.
  • You can set it up and take it down easily. Does it take one person or two to assemble? Is it lightweight and comfortable to carry? Test it before you get to the beach.
  • The coverage is angled. The sun is only directly overhead once each day, and sunlight can reflect, so look for a product that tilts or has wall panels, says Arielle Kauvar, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine. "I see a lot of tents that are up really high on four posts, but down at the bottom you're actually getting a lot of sun exposure."
  • It allows a breeze. If it's a cabana or a tent with sides, make sure it has air vents, Dr. Martin says, because it's easy for children, especially babies, to get overheated. Fabrics that keep out rain typically have less ventilation than more meshlike materials designed only to protect from the sun.

Related Features:

Get Your Local Playground Covered

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.

  • Write an appeal letter. Contact the agency that owns the playground and express your concerns in a few key points. Framing it as a health issue is the best approach, Christoff says.
  • Come up with a plan. Most shade-system manufacturers will gladly come to your playground and create a design for you. (The biggest companies have national networks of sales reps.) They should be able to estimate the cost, a key detail whether you're going after a grant or asking a government agency for money.
  • Find allies. Contact dermatologists, other parents, and local branches of the PTA or the American Cancer Society, and ask them for support.
  • Lobby legislators. Collect signatures, contact the media, and go in a large group to the televised local government meetings.
  • Think big. It's easiest and least expensive to plan for shade as you're designing a new playground, rather than going back and adding it later. Ask your city or school district to consider requiring all new play areas to be covered. Point out that such guidelines are becoming more common nationwide.

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.

Related Features:

Wallace A. Smith Elementary School
Credit: Courtesy of Wallace A. Smith Elementary School

How One School Got Shady

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."

Related Features:

Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

Parents Magazine