In summary

California’s decision to reopen outdoor playgrounds correctly prioritizes the health and wellness of our children.

By Jeffrey Klausner

Dr. Jeffrey Klausner is a professor of Medicine and Public Health at UCLA. He is a former medical officer for the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control and a former deputy health officer at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, JDKlausner@mednet.ucla.edu.

Phil Ginsburg, Special to CalMatters

Phil Ginsburg is the general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, phil.ginsburg@sfgov.org.

Gov. Gavin Newsom this week allowed playgrounds to reopen statewide. It was a reversal of a portion of the current health order that had shuttered playgrounds since Sunday. It was also the right thing to do – a decision based on both science and fairness. 

Decades of research show scrambling up the jungle gym or swinging on the monkey bars is much more than child’s play. For kids, playgrounds boost mental and physical health, sharpen problem solving and coping skills, and even ease the effects of trauma. 

Those long-established benefits make playgrounds essential spaces for children. We’re grateful they will remain open with capacity limits, hand sanitizing stations, and requirements for masks and social distancing. 

Since the outset of the pandemic, the best public health strategies have balanced the risk of transmission with the risks of shutdowns and restrictions on activities otherwise crucial to our collective health and well-being. The decision to reopen outdoor playgrounds correctly prioritizes the health and wellness of our children.  Most other normal socialization has been halted or restricted for them – school, birthday parties, enrichment activities and hugs from grandparents. The New York Times has labeled 2020 “The Lost Year” for our children.

Scientific evidence mostly supports keeping outdoor playgrounds open. Though there was concern early in the pandemic about playground surfaces spreading infection, the CDC said in May that surfaces are “not the main way” the coronavirus spreads. Successive studies have fortified that belief.  While respiratory transmission remains a concern, outdoor airflow combined with masking, sanitizing and reasonable physical distancing and space capacity restrictions have proven successful strategies. While data are limited, to date there have been no known outbreaks traced to outdoor playgrounds.    

Children also appear to be 50% less likely to contract the virus than adults with similar exposures. Among children who do get infected, the disease course is often asymptomatic or produces mild symptoms compared to adults. Children can spread the virus; however, it seems children do not transmit the infection as easily as adults.   

The governor’s decision acknowledges an important truth: Playgrounds are not optional, they are essential. Play is how children develop executive function, cognitive abilities and gross motor skills. Playgrounds are vital urban infrastructure, particularly for those who live without equitable access to outdoor space.

The need for structured places to play outside is especially important now, when children are stuck at home without in-person school, team sports or physical education. Not only do swings and slides in playgrounds let kids get the exercise they need for healthy sleep patterns, but outside play is also critical in helping kids settle down for online learning. 

In a 2017 study, researchers from Northeastern University in Boston and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found children who exercised more “showed significant improvements in their scores on a computerized test that measures how well children pay attention, process information and avoid being impulsive.”

With playgrounds reopened, kids can continue to forge strong connections with one another through learning how to share, negotiate, resolve conflicts and develop self-advocacy skills. The more time a family spends together at a community playground, the greater its sense of family well-being in terms of strong relationships, quality health and time spent together.  

Perhaps most importantly, they allow children some escape. The towers, boats, planes and dragons found in a neighborhood playground allow children to be mountain climbers, pilots, mythical heroes and more. Playgrounds are not luxuries, they allow children to thrive. 

While wealthy families have found refuge from the claustrophobia of the pandemic through mountain getaways and out of school time enrichment pods, poorer families and those in dense neighborhoods rely on playgrounds for their physical and emotional well-being. Playgrounds are the most equitable, accessible and democratic recreational amenity that a city and its state can offer young children and their families.

Since the beginning of this profoundly serious crisis, public health orders have been crafted to allow adults the kind of fresh air and exercise they crave – a run through the park, a hike on a trail, watching the sunset at the beach. 

We commend our state’s public health officials for their heroic work and the difficult trade-offs they face with each amendment to health orders needed to meet the moment. In allowing playgrounds to reopen, they have acknowledged that play matters and that our kids deserve a win.

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Dr. Klausner has also written about the need for an emergency hearing on vaccines, ending the state of emergency over COVID-19California’s shelter-at-home-policy and the sexually transmitted disease crisis

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