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Friday, July 15, 2011

Parks in the Summertime

Summer is in full swing, and, living in Florida, the temperatures are getting awful hot.  Still, indoor amusements only last for so long before you need to get your kids out of the house or lose your mind.
As the sun swelters overhead, gone are the days of packing everyone in the car on a moment’s notice and heading to the nearest outdoor adventure. So, how do you get your outdoor time without everyone being burned, hot, cranky and bug bitten?

I've found it best to schedule an outing in the morning, before the sun has a chance to make it high in the sky. No matter where you choose to go, unless there’s water involved or ample shading, the sun’s heat will force you back indoors sooner than later. My kids are also better behaved in the morning, after a good night's sleep. They're more amenable to change and will go with the flow better. Anything that means fewer tantrums for me to deal with is a great idea in my book.

Child Preparation:
Sometimes we forget how important sunblock and insect repellant can be. Even if you're not swimming and the kids are mostly covered up, the areas of skin exposed to the elements need to be protected.
University of Florida pediatrician Stephanie Ryan recommends staying away from combination blocks, even though they seem to be more convenient.
“Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outdoors and remember to reapply every 2 hours,” she says. “Avoid the combination products of sunscreen and bug repellant because sunscreen needs to be reapplied often, but insect repellant should not be reapplied.”

Park equipment comes in all colors, but even the lightest cream-colored slides can burn the skin after just a few minutes in the summer sun. Be sure to dress your kids in full pants so that their skin is safe from the hot metal and plastic that comes with playgrounds.
I've also found that  sneakers and socks are the best park wear, even though they're warmer than sandals and a hassle to put on.  Parks tend to be lined with sand, wood chips or rubbery tire bits. The tire bits can cause unstable footing leading to twisted ankles and dirty feet. The wood chips can splinter or poke an unprotected sole. The sand gets ultra-hot and messy.

When looking for a park to suit your needs best, consider the age of your children and their personalities. Those with toddlers would be best suited for small, well-fenced areas with beginner-level equipment.  
“For playgrounds for little kids (under age 5), I'd say that one of the biggest safety aspects is a park that has a separate area for this age group versus the bigger kids,” says Ryan. “Kids under 4 should not climb any equipment that is taller than they are without close supervision.”

Before leaving for the day, decide how long you are going to be there. While some parks have a picnic area and public bathroom set up, others are not fit to accommodate a full-day trip. If you just plan on going to the park for an hour or two, you may want to choose a smaller park with fewer distractions, making it easier to leave when lunch or dinner calls. If your kids are potty trained, you'll definitely want a bathroom nearby. I've learned the hard way that sometimes we'll all spend more time in the john than on the slides.

Even in this stifling heat, my kids do better when they've had a chance to play outdoors. I wouldn't be able to do it if not for the considerations I outlined above. It took a year of trial and error, but now we're Florida-summer park pros. I still don't have any advice on the not-wanting-to-leave toddler meltdown, though. Hopefully I learn that next.

**Sections of this piece were published in The Gainesville Sun.
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