seal  Purdue News

July 7, 2003

Taking cover on playground helps keep children safe from sun

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - More needs to be done to protect children from harmful sunlight while they play and exercise outdoors, says a child educator at Purdue University.

"Childhood obesity is increasing rapidly, and we need to encourage children to spend time outside where they can run, bike, swing or play in the sand," says Linn Veen, director of the Purdue Child Care Program, which serves children under the age of 6. "But we also need to ensure kids' safety when playing in the sun."

made in the shade
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Skin care is fundamental at the Purdue Child Care Program, a learning laboratory for students in the Department of Child Development and Family Studies. Information about protecting children from the sun's harmful effects is sent home, and children are asked to bring a bottle of sunblock to school. Parents also are asked to put sunscreen on their children in the mornings, and teachers reapply the sunscreen before afternoon outdoor play.

The program's most visible prevention efforts are two large canopies over the playground equipment and sandbox. The fabric canopies filter 81 percent to 95 percent of the sun's ultraviolet rays, the leading environmental factor in developing skin cancer as well as some eye conditions. Skin cancer affects more than 1 million people a year. Ultraviolet rays contain harmful radiation, and even a tan signifies sun exposure is damaging skin cells. Ultraviolet A and B, which cause the most skin damage, are two of three kinds of ultraviolet light.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend avoiding direct sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. However, ultraviolet rays can reach a person during cloudy days and can be reflected off water, sand, cement and snow. That's why any outdoor play at Purdue Child Care, even under the canopies, requires children to wear sunscreen.

"We now know that sunburns and exposure during childhood are a risk factor for skin cancer, and even though we may not see the damage right away, we need to make sure we are protecting our children," Veen says.

This will be the third summer for children to play outdoors underneath the canopies, which help keep the play area cooler on hot summer days. A striped canopy, which is 20 by 30 feet, was selected for the sandbox since children are more stationary and their necks are more exposed to the sun when they bend over to play in the sand, says Julie Hickman, landscape designer in Purdue's office of the university architect.

"Unfortunately, we do not see widespread use of playground canopies in Indiana," she says. "Often, because trees grow slow, this is the only way to provide shade on a playground or sandbox."

Hickman says sun canopies are widely used in the southwestern part of the country. Cost, as well as the labor required to take down the fabric before winter snow and wind, may dissuade the purchase of a canopy. The cost ranges from $10,000 to $15,000 for a large playground canopy.

"Even if a canopy is not a possible option, there are other ways to provide coverage, such as trees or positioning the sandbox under a building extension," Hickman says. "Trees will not do well in high traffic areas. They are often not wanted because they drop leaves and seedpods."

The Purdue Child Care Program was founded in 1983 and serves 77 children from 2 1/2 years old to age 6 on a full-day basis throughout the year. The program is a teaching and research program that houses state-of-the-art classroom observation facilities and consultation rooms in the child development and family studies department. The program provides child development practicum and student teaching experiences for students. The Child Development Laboratory School serves infants and toddlers and children up to age 5.

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723,

Source: Linn Veen, (765) 494-0240,

Julie Hickman, (765) 496-7742,


Purdue Child Care Program student volunteer Laura Elicker (at left) watches as Rian Egan (background) and Lauren White play at Fowler House. The children play outdoors underneath canopies that help filter harmful rays from the sun. The program's director, Linn Veen, says it's important for children to play outside and be physically active, but it also is important to protect them from the potentially harmful effects of the sun. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)

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