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Shade is an integral, if undervalued, aspect of playground design. Some of the best playgrounds earn their distinction because they offer a range of sun-protected areas where children can play and rest. And some very good playgrounds could be better if they provided more shade to sustain longer stretches of play, protect children from intense, skin-damaging sun exposure, and remain inviting during the hottest stretches of the year. Here we look at a few of the benefits shade brings to a playground as well as strategies for incorporating more sun protected areas into a design.

Benefits of Shade

1.Reduces UV exposure
A number of studies have documented that exposure to UV rays is a risk factor for most skin cancers. Covering skin with protective clothing and using UV protective sunscreen of at least 30 SPF can reduce these risks. So, too, can the concerted efforts of playground designers, landscape architects, city park departments and school administrators to incorporate adequate shaded areas into parks and playgrounds. The AAD Shade Structure Program offers up to $8,000 in grants to public schools and nonprofit organizations for installing permanent shade structures for outdoor playgrounds. You can learn more about applying for the grant here.  

2. Improves comfort, aesthetic quality, and play value
In addition to protecting kid’s skin, shade at parks and playgrounds keeps their bodies cool, so they can play for longer periods without overheating. For families, shade from a tree or shade structure can make picnic areas more comfortable, reducing heat and glare. Ornamental trees and shade structures can also add visual interest to a playground by adding height and dimensionality to an otherwise flat or underdeveloped design.

Sand and water exploratory works at Alexander Kemp Playground, Cambridge Common, MA

Often having pockets of shade—under a wooden play structure, in a play house, under the canopy of a mature tree or planted trellis, inside a small pavilion—can serve two functions at once: giving children protected space for privacy and independent play, while also defining a quiet refuge where they can rest, recharge, and cool off.

Rubber surfacing goes a long way in reducing the residual heat emanating from the ground of a playspace, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for full or partial overhead cover from the sun. As designers plan a site layout and select equipment, the height of surrounding buildings and awnings and their sun orientation is important to consider. The southern or western wall of a building exposure is not likely to provide much added shade in the afternoon, but a northern or eastern wall might provide a comfortably shaded nook for children to enjoy late in the day.

3. Lowers playground maintenance and repair costs
Shade features and installations can add to the playground’s lifetime by minimizing sun damage and reducing the need for costly maintenance and repairs. In the sun’s heat, plastic structures can weaken and crack, and metal brackets can corrode. Stainless steel structures are more resistant to such sun damage, but also benefit from a reprieve from intense heat and light exposure.

4. Reduces the heat of equipment
Shade can also be an important safety issue in the context of children’s direct skin contact with equipment. The Field, a professional practice blog of the American Society of Landscape Architects, reports that in Cathedral City, California a laser temperature reading of playground equipment at Panorama Park found it measured 161F to 180F. Granted, this was on a 115F degree day, a temperature high enough to make simply being outside oppressive to all but the hardiest of souls. Nevertheless, it is a reminder that playground equipment can get uncomfortably hot and should be properly shaded.

Shade structures at Kids Rock Playground in Orange County, CA | photo via Ken Smith Workshop

Incorporating shade elements into a design
Though there is no right way to provide comfortable shade at a playground, understanding the site’s climate, arboreal cycles, and surrounding building features is a good way to establish some grounding parameters. Nearby buildings or permanent structures, evergreen trees or broad-canopied deciduous trees with dense foliage, and shade structures of polyethylene, fabric, vinyl, wood, steel, can all serve as effective options to bring shade and a touch of drama and excitement to a playground.

Playground equipment and shade structure manufacturers offer of-the-shelf options ranging from sail shades to cantilevered structures to pyramidal canopies. The custom-designed cloud-like structures at Kids Rock Playground in Orange County, California, designed by the landscape firm Ken Smith Workshop, are even more adventurous, serving as the architectural focal point of a sunny toddler playground. Here in Chicago, some of the most beautiful and comfortably shaded playgrounds, such as Oz Park in Lincoln Park and Indian Boundary Park in West Ridge, are those that situate their play structures under old growth trees to take advantage of nature’s given assets. With a similar situational awareness applied to a revitalized urban setting, Q Park in Fort Point Boston by Reed Hilderbrand Associates Inc. uses the shade from brick residential lofts and ornamental trees surrounding the perimeter of the playspace to shield Goric’s attractive sculptural play elements from the sun.

Q Park in Fort Point Boston by Reed Hilderbrand Associates Inc., stainless steel play structures by Goric

Whatever your design approach, we hope you will recognize shade as a matter of necessity, rather than a hoped-for consideration. For health, comfort, and the restoration of our bodies and souls, we all need some time to cool off.