Two things are true: We’re smack in the middle of summer, a time when toddlers through young teens are itching to play outside, and we’re also firmly within a widespread uptick in new novel coronavirus cases as the pandemic rages on. As nearly all 50 states have reopened most public places after stay-at-home orders expired, parents are looking to incorporate more time outdoors but may feel conflicted about heading to a nearby playground. After all, they’re often packed with other kids and caregivers, full of clammy metal and plastic surfaces, and encourage our little ones to run wild (not exactly a model for social distancing).
Ultimately, each playground is different, and other factors also play into how likely your child (or yourself!) is to encounter SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to a COVID-19 diagnosis. The community you live in, how many people are in the playground at a given time, and your family’s own individual risk threshold play a role here. As a parent, there are many ways you can make your visit to the playground less risky — but it’s also important to grasp that your kid is meant to run free here, says Harvey Karp, M.D., a Los Angeles-based pediatrician and CEO of Happiest Baby. “It’s tough, because you’re taking someone who loves chocolate cake and putting it in front of them, and saying, ‘Don’t touch the cake,’ right? The joy of being in the playground is to run after the other kids,” he says. “Making rules, if they’re over 5 or 6 years old, you might get away with that — but it’s not for the little kids, and that’s okay.”
Below, we’re reviewing the most apparent risks in a playground, seamless tips for getting your kids to stay safe while playing, and what to do at the playground or park itself.
Note: There has been widespread debate on the role that children play in the spread of COVID-19, and the severity of the cases that affect children and teens. Recent public comments from high-ranking officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasize limited research which suggests children do not spread the disease in the same fashion that adults do. Current CDC guidelines suggest an overwhelming majority of cases have occurred in adults, but White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx has stated that officials are looking into the context of children’s testing in the U.S. before the agency labels children a low-risk vector for COVID-19 spread.
How risky are playgrounds during the pandemic?
There are two major ways that COVID-19 is spread throughout communities, Dr. Karp explains: Infectious airborne respiratory droplets or particles, and contaminated surfaces. Because SARS-CoV-2 is “rather fragile” in outdoor spaces due to the role that sunlight and humidity plays in neutralizing viral particles, Dr. Karp says indoor playgrounds are far worse than outdoor playgrounds — and that you should be mainly concerned about the following risk factors in a playground setting:
Crowded spaces. If the playground or park is busy, there’s a good chance your child will be forced to share tight spaces with other children (think: slides, stairs, seesaws, sandboxes). The more children in a playground, the greater the chance that another child (or their parent) breathes out potentially infectious airborne particles in close proximity. This is why many states are asking parents and children with no pre-existing conditions to wear masks while in public, even during playtime.
The playground set itself. Playsets are made of plastic, steel, or other non-porous surfaces. Recent research published in The Lancet suggests that viral particles can live on glass, wood, paper, plastic, and stainless steel all in excess of 24 hours (in some cases, up to a week). This research was conducted in a laboratory setting, and outdoor spaces may not harbor virus particles as successfully, but Dr. Karp says there’s a possibility that infectious virus particles may live on all the surfaces your little one is touching during playtime. And things like wooden ropes or sand can’t be properly disinfected like hard surfaces, which is something to keep in mind.
Shared toys among kids. Balls, action figures, dolls, and sporting equipment often have a funny way of being passed around at the playground, right? These items’ surfaces also provide a similar risk to kids as do swings, monkey bars, and seesaws.
Other parents. Available data and research illustrates that adults are much more likely to spread COVID-19 than children at this point, which means that parents may be the biggest threat to kids’ safety on the playground, not the other kids.
Should my child be wearing a mask to the playground?
The short answer is yes: “Your child should be wearing a mask if they’ll tolerate that,” Dr. Karp says. The CDC has ruled that kids under 2 years old shouldn’t be wearing the mask, but that’s not because it may be harmful for them to do so — it’s mostly because young children in general have a hard time wearing a mask at all. “It’s a much harder task for a 2-year-old to be able to manage that and accept it, especially in a playground, and that’s true for kids of all ages really” Dr. Karp explains, adding that some children may feel sensory sensitive to a mask on their face. “It just bothers them, that something’s touching their face. It’s so important for parents to understand that their child’s resistance may not be a reflection of willfulness, but it may well be something that they’re sensitive to.”
Of course, there’ll come a time where you bring your child to a park and the mask slips off their face, becomes contaminated, or they may choose to rip it off, says Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents. “Even if you feel your own worry spike when your child forgets the rules, do your best to stay calm and patient in the moment,” Edlynn advises, adding that getting down to eye-level of the child is a good way to ask them to put it back on, or to leave the playground altogether. “If we communicate frustration or anxiety, our emotional response triggers their emotional response, which easily turns into meltdown behaviors, and then the situation is no longer focused on remembering rules.”
If you are having problems managing your own anxiety around this issue, that’s when you should ask yourself: Should I bring my child to an open, isolated space in a park where they may not have to wear a mask around others? At the end of the day, Dr. Karp says you shouldn’t stress too much: Cloth-based masks are primarily designed to keep the wearer from spewing infectious particles into the air, and not to prevent you from inhaling these particles. The best way to ensure kids actually keep masks on? Practice wearing them at home.
How to keep kids safe at the playground:
The CDC has released their own guidelines for parents to consider: Primarily, they ask parents and kids to stay 6 feet away from others they don’t live with as much as possible, and use special consideration when entering swimming pools or water facilities altogether. Carefully planning your trip to the playground can substantially lower the risk that your child (or yourself) is exposed to SARS-CoV-2 while getting in much needed playtime outside.
Practice wearing masks at home. This is one of the best ways to make your child more comfortable with wearing masks at the playground, too. Model the behavior at home and make it fun, too. “Color the mask, put stickers on it, model it on their teddy bear, and actively practice it at home if they’re resistant to wearing them outside,” Dr. Karp says. “You can reward them for their cooperation inside and outside, so it builds up their tolerance for the mask overall.” Edlynn adds that you can take it a step further by emulating a playground set up at home: “You could also practice at home in a game of pretend playground since actually going through the motions and using play can help kids internalize expectations even better.”
Establish rules before you head out. Edlynn says you don’t have to harp on your kids to get them to practice safety while playing outside “Break it down into simple steps: ‘Masks on, personal bubble, and no sharing.’ Talk about it before the playground outing, repeat it when you are leaving the house, and again when you get there,” she advises. Younger children may benefit from a fun nemonic or even a song that they can “sing over and over to themselves to really imprint” the message, Edlynn adds.
Choose a time when the playground is less busy. Going first thing in the morning when it opens, or right before it closes, might help you avoid big crowds in the middle of the day. It may also allow you to disinfect some areas of the playground if you choose to do so: “To one degree, it’ll make you the neurotic person in the playground, but if you know that your child is going to play on a certain piece of equipment for a while — like a swing or a seesaw — you can wipe it down beforehand,” Dr. Karp says.
Focus on cleaning hands and faces, not surfaces. If you end up in a playground during a busy rush, it’s impossible to properly disinfect all the surfaces your child will touch. Rather, Dr. Karp says you should focus on teaching them to avoid touching their face, and establish a rule where they periodically stop playing to have their hands cleaned with hand sanitizer. “Another thing that people can carry with them as a little soapy washcloth in a Ziploc bag, and just clean their child’s face periodically, or even with appropriate store-bought wipes. In the case that they’ve rubbed their nose, touched their cheeks or forehead, a wipe can help lower the risk that germs will be introduced into nearby mucous membranes.”
Actively insert yourself into playtime. Usually, you can sit back from a distance and casually watch your child tire themselves out with other kids on the playground. But if you really want your child to stay away from others, you might try to insert yourself into activities that can keep the focus on you: “Play catch, play pretend, do what you have to to be the playmate and run them around and get them tired, and younger kids may not feel the need to interact elsewhere,” Dr. Karp says. In a park where there’s plenty of space and no rules to ban you from doing so, try bringing a dog outside for playtime as well. They may keep your child engaged and away from other kids as well, and in a sense, you’re freeing two birds with one key — both pup and child will get a chance to run about and release some energy outside.
As more information about the coronavirus pandemic develops, some of the information in this story may have changed since it was last updated. For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, please visit the online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department.
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