Running, jumping and climbing are a big part of being a kid — and for parents, it’s probably better for all that activity to happen on a playground, rather than the living room furniture.
But it hasn’t been easy to do that during this very housebound year. Public playgrounds were shut down, along with everything else, under the stay-at-home orders issued at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. When they reopened in the D.C. region during the summer, parents and caregivers were left to decide whether it was safe to return to the monkey bars and slides.
The good news is that outdoor activities are generally considered to be safer than indoor ones, and surface transmission is “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There have been more than 60,000 papers published related to covid-19, and playgrounds have not been identified as a significant source of transmission, says Stefan Baral, an associate professor in the epidemiology department at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and an advocate for reopening playgrounds.
“I really think that these are safe places for kids to enjoy,” he says. “There are many parts of the city where green spaces and playgrounds are the only public spaces people have access to for kids to enjoy themselves. That’s just critical. It’s critical for the kids and it’s critical for the parents.”
Getting outside is important from a mental health standpoint — especially during this stressful year. “Being outdoors, you unplug,” says psychologist Mary Alvord, who runs a large practice in Maryland’s Montgomery County and is the author of books on resilience and stress in children and teens. “[You’re] being active and taking in nature, and also having a breather and being able to relax from not just screens but the news and everything.”
A few general precautions and preparations can help families feel more comfortable venturing outside for adventures. Xiaoyan Song, director of infection control and epidemiology at Children’s National Hospital, suggests setting up a routine before leaving the house for anything, including playgrounds. The first step is asking yourself if the trip is necessary. “Give two seconds thinking about it: ‘Do I have to go? Yes, I do.’ Then prepare yourself,” she says. “From my end, it’s fine for people to continue their daily activities as long as they feel it should be done.”
Once you’ve decided to head out, here are some best practices from pediatricians and epidemiologists for visiting playgrounds during a pandemic, along with practical tips from parents.
Be prepared. Masks — for kids and adults — are “probably your most important supply to take to a playground,” says Lanre Falusi, a pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital and mother of two young daughters.
In addition, Song recommends bringing hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to clean high-touch surfaces like swings or picnic tables. She’s not a fan of gloves, since people wearing them often touch their faces, which defeats the purpose: “Gloves sometimes really give people a very false sense of security.”
Use hand sanitizer. Don’t assume that public playground equipment is being disinfected. Since kids are going to touch everything at the playground, Song recommends regular breaks for sanitizing hands — and particularly before they reach for snacks. “We need some practice to wire this into their daily routine, but it will apply not only for (COVID-19) prevention, but will also be helpful to prevent other types of illness,” she says.
You’ll want to wash hands thoroughly when you get home, too. “Hand hygiene is so key and it’s effective, too,” says Falusi.
Pack a playground go-bag. Eileen Myhr, who has three daughters and documents playgrounds on her Instagram account @500parks, corrals masks, hand sanitizer, wipes and snacks in a dedicated bag for outings (she also includes a towel to dry off wet equipment). Jennifer Liao, who writes about kid-friendly outings and travel on her blog Family Trip Guides, keeps a gallon of water in an old orange juice jug and a small container of liquid soap in her bag, for a makeshift hand-washing station.
Avoid crowds. “You want to encourage kids to not be too close to each other,” Baral says. For very young children who can’t wear a mask easily, “really try to make an effort and find a time that not very many other kids are around on the playground,” Song says.
When Myhr and her girls want to go to a bigger playground, the family plans to arrive around 8:30 a.m. and eat breakfast at the park. “If you go before 10 a.m., I don’t really find too many other people there,” she says. One exception: She’s noticed that playgrounds next to soccer fields can still be very busy early on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Be strategic. Liao, who has a 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, tries to do some research beforehand and looks for spots with more than one play structure. “I really choose the playgrounds based on how many different structures it has or how many different places to play, so that our kids can be a little bit separate from other kids,” she says.
Myhr seeks out smaller, lesser known playgrounds so her daughters (ages 7, 5 and 2) can play together. “Some of the bigger playgrounds [have] a toddler section and an older kids section, but they might not necessarily be close to each other,” she says. “I’m a fan of the small parks right now so I can watch them.”
For Laura Schaefer, who documents her family’s adventures on Instagram at @playgroundsofnova, an open field with woods nearby is a big plus. “My guys like to run. They like to play tag, and chase each other around,” she says of her 7-year-old son and 4-year-old twin boys, who are perfectly happy spending 20 minutes running in a field if a playground is busy. She also likes to do a little recon and see if there’s a nearby bathroom in the park for handwashing.
- Have a backup plan. If you decide a playground is too crowded, that could be a recipe for disappointment (or a full-on meltdown). Talk it out with your kids beforehand to manage expectations, and then prepare a few alternatives in advance. “As we’re driving, we’ll say, ‘OK, guys, if there’s a lot of people playing, we’re going to walk the trail first, or go to the pond,’ “ Myhr says. She’ll also bring a basketball, soccer ball or a bottle of bubbles to play with while they’re waiting for play structures to empty out a bit.
Other activity ideas include sidewalk chalk and kites, but if you forget to bring a distraction, look to nature. Myhr’s daughters have enjoyed hunting for unique fall leaves while waiting to play. “I was really surprised how interested they are in collecting leaves and pine cones,” she says.
You can always use a little bribery, too. After showing up at a very busy playground and ultimately deciding to leave for another location, Liao had a crowd-pleasing idea: “We definitely got ice cream after that and pivoted to something fun.”
- Keep an eye on your child, and be a good role model. Instead of scrolling through your phone, tune in to what’s happening with your kids on the playground. “We talk about kids playing outside and social distancing, but it’s also important for adults too,” Falusi says. “If you’re watching the kids to make sure that they are staying six feet apart, let’s make sure we as adults are . . . also staying six feet apart from one another, and wearing our masks and keeping our hands clean.”
Liao says she’s been more hands-on at the playground than she would have been in the past. “I’m making sure that they’re distancing and not getting into anybody else’s way,” she says. “After just one playground trip, they got the hang of it.”
- Be patient with other adults. Parenting isn’t easy right now, and our playground rules should include a little grace for the grown-ups, too. “The whole issue of coronavirus and your approach to it varies considerably,” says Schaefer. “I’ve seen kids show up with all manner of masks, and I’ve seen kids show up where nobody is wearing a mask. There is just a variety of responses.
“If you show up to a place — and I have before — where you feel uncomfortable, your reaction might be to get mad or feel frustrated. Maybe just understand there are people who feel differently than you and it’s OK. You can go somewhere else, it’s no big deal.”