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 K. Alvord, who runs a large practice in 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: Representatives from the park services in Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery counties told The Post that there are no coronavirus-related special cleanings.
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 in Fairfax 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, ‘Okay, 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 okay. You can go somewhere else, it’s no big deal.”
Where to go
For families looking for a new outdoor outing this fall, here’s where to bundle up and head out with the kids at a few playgrounds in the D.C. area that are downright magical.
Anacostia Park: The pirate-themed playground near the bank of the Anacostia River at this National Park Service park includes a play structure that looks like it’s ready to set sail. Kids can scramble up the bow and peer in the portholes of this red-and-black pirate ship, complete with masts, sails and a crow’s nest — and a slide and climbing walls too. Nicholson Street and Anacostia Drive SE.
Ashburn Park: Budding paleontologists might feel right at home at this shady playground in Ashburn, nicknamed “Dinosaur Park” by neighbors. The ramps and slides are decorated with colorful graphics of stegosauruses and mastodons. 43645 Partlow Rd., Ashburn.
Cabin John Regional Park: Primary-colored playground equipment sprouts up among the trees in this shady Bethesda park, with plenty of room for kids to run in between the slides and towers. But the most memorable part of their afternoon might be feeding Porky the litter eater, a 1960s-era, vacuum-powered trash receptacle with a pig’s face that actually snorts and talks to kids as it sucks in paper. 7400 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda.
Clemyjontri Park: This gigantic playground in McLean is one of the biggest and best known playgrounds in the area, with four outdoor “rooms,” such as a Rainbow Room adorned with ROYGBIV arches, all spread across two acres. The playground is also known for its accessibility for all children, including nonslip surfaces, Braille signage and one of the country’s few Liberty Swings that kids can use while in a wheelchair. 6317 Georgetown Pike, McLean.
Fort Greble Playground: A lookout tower with an extra-long slide provides a view of what once was a Union fort defending Washington during the Civil War. Slides, ropes, and climbing structures are built right into the earthwork, for a little bit of history while kids play. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Elmira Street SW.
Lee District Park: “Chessie’s Big Backyard” at Lee District Park is expansive: Before kids run over bridges and hit the slides in the nautical and nature-themed accessible playgrounds, they can “hike” along a paved 2,160-foot nature trail dotted with xylophones and animal sculptures that beg to be climbed on. If the main play structures are too crowded, there’s a smaller, tent-covered playground across the park near the indoor pool. 6601 Telegraph Rd., Alexandria.
Rosedale Playground: Tiny versions of the Washington Monument, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, U.S. Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, Hirshhorn Museum and other Mall landmarks are nestled into this Kingman Park playground. The accessible space is designed for all children to play together, with room for wheelchairs to maneuver as well as sensory elements like talk tubes. 1701 Gales St. NE.
Quincy Park Playground: Arlington unveiled its first accessible playground using universal design principles at Quincy Park in 2016, with rolling hills instead of ramps, plenty of slides and climbing structures, a music station and activities for the littlest ones (including a tandem baby/adult swing). 1021 N. Quincy St., Arlington.
Walker Mill Regional Park: This elaborate “Woodland Wonderland”-themed playground goes all out with its treehouse, which has an attached twisty red slide. Kids can swing on cattails while parents take a breather at picnic tables under giant mushrooms. (Note: This playground is temporarily closed as lead testing is conducted on its synthetic surfaces.) 8001 Walker Mill Rd., District Heights.
Wheaton Regional Park: The tube-shaped slides at the Adventure Playground at Wheaton Regional Park are almost comically long — they’re basically multistory. Once kids conquer the slides, another unique feature is a blue “mountain” that adventurers can scale to look down on parents below. 2002 Shorefield Rd., Wheaton.
Watkins Regional Park: Anticipation builds as a winding Yellow Brick Road leads to a “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”-themed playground that spares no detail. Here, Dorothy’s ruby red slippers double as slides and the L. Frank Baum book comes alive, flying monkeys and all. 301 Watkins Park Dr., Upper Marlboro.