Playgrounds are important for children's development and mental health - here's how to reduce their COVID transmission risk Image Credit: Composite by Melany Demetillo-Reyes

Scampering, slipping and sliding are all a natural part of being a child - and for parents (and their home decor), it's probably better for all that activity to happen outside, rather than in the house.

But it hasn't been easy to do that during this very screen-bound, #stayhome year. The UAE's public playgrounds were shut down, along with everything else, during the lockdown issued at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Since they reopened towards the end of June, parents have been left to decide for themselves whether it is safe to return to the swings and climbing frames.

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. “Outdoor playgrounds and pools have the benefit of fresh air and more space between people than indoor spaces,” says Dr Fiona Rennie, Family Medicine Specialist at Genesis Healthcare Clinic in Dubai. “If you are going to leave home than it is safer to be outside, where the airflow can help dilute the virus, than in a mall, where there is less airflow.”

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, Stefan Baral, an associate professor in the epidemiology department at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Washington Post.

"I really think that these are safe places for kids to enjoy," he says. For many UAE families, parks and playgrounds are the only outdoor spaces people have access to for their kids to enjoy themselves. “That's just critical,” says Baral, “It's critical for the kids and it's critical for the parents."

Now that the weather is starting to cool down, getting outside is important from a mental health standpoint - especially during a predominantly screen-bound, stressful year. A University of Adelaide review of 186 studies from around the world has found “green time” is far better for children and adolescents mental health and academic achievement than screen time, and that getting outside and spending time in nature can help to both cure and buffer against the negative mental health impact of staring at a screen all day, as many kids have done with distance learning.

"Being outdoors, you unplug," psychologist Mary Alvord, who is the author of books on resilience and stress in children and teens, told the Washington Post. "[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."

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.

Although only children over the age of six years are required to wear face masks in Dubai, the CDC recommends that children over the age of two years wear face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (eg between children, in playgrounds), and there is a compelling body of evidence that wearing face masks can greatly decrease the risk of virus transmission. As a result, if your child is aged between three and five years old and can tolerate a face mask and wear it properly, you may want to encourage them to wear one even though it is not mandatory.

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

Scientists have found that SARS-CoV-2 remains viable for up to 72 hours on plastic and steel surfaces, and for up to 8 hours on copper and cardboard surfaces. We also know that it is possible for someone to become infected by the virus through touching a contaminated surface, and then touching their nose, mouth or eyes (although this is not thought to be the main way that the virus spreads).

Although Dubai Municipality’s guidelines and protocol for reopening requires that playground equipment is sanitized at least once every hour, frequently washing or sanitizing your child’s hands will reduce this risk further. “If there aren’t bathrooms nearby to wash children hands regularly then carry hand sanitizer along with a bottle of water to rinse any sand or dirt off the hands before using sanitizer (hand sanitizer is less effective on dirty or greasy hands),” says Dr Rennie. “If eating at the playground make sure you clean your child’s hands first and also clean their hands after leaving the playground.”

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. “If a playground is very busy with children, consider coming back a different time of the day when it is quieter especially if you have small children that do not understand social distancing,” says Dr Rennie. She adds that adults spread the virus more readily than children so adults should make sure that they socially distance in the playgrounds and pool areas as well.

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.

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."

Large public parks like Zabeel or Dubai Creek Park have lots of green space and many different play structures dotted across them, so that you can move on to another if one gets busy, while smaller parks like Al Khazzan or Safa Park 2 are easy in terms of keeping an eye on your little ones, but you may have to experiment with the times when they are busy or not.

Read our guide to Dubai's 12 best free parks and outdoor play areas for kids.

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 – perhaps on the way there explain that, if it is busy, you’re going to try another park, or the beach, or you’ll go to get a snack somewhere. 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 fallen leaves and petals while waiting to play. "I was really surprised how interested they are in collecting leaves," 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."