How extreme heat might change your kid's summers

This summer might be the hottest on record. Here’s what that could mean for the future of your child’s annual break.

Andra Brosy Chastain was considering a family camping trip this August to a cabin near Sunriver in Central Oregon. She and her two young kids, ages 4 and 1, would meet up with another family for a week of hiking, swimming, and playing in the woods.

But nervous about extreme heat that many parts of the country have recently experienced, she decided to stay home in Vancouver, Washington, for the summer instead.

“In the last few years, it has become more obvious that we need to make vacation plans around the climate,” she says. “Now with the heat, it's happening more often. We just had three days with the temperature over 100 degrees, and this isn’t an aberration anymore. This is going to become the new normal.”

The scorching heat wave that blanketed the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the country at the end of June was just part of an already alarming trend toward more extreme heat. According the Copernicus Climate Change Service, June was the hottest month in North America on record, more than two degrees above the average from 1991 to 2020. And 2020 was the hottest summer ever in the United States; summer 2021 may be hotter still.

“Extreme heat is becoming the norm,” says Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (Read this explanation about “heat domes,” which contributed to the extreme temperatures in the Pacific Northwest in June.)

And scientists agree these extreme summers are exacerbated by climate change. “In general, we’re seeing the summer season expanded a bit, starting sooner and ending later, and we’re seeing some the temperatures of the most intense heat days go up,” says Jennifer Vanos, a senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University.

For kids, more intense temperatures will likely mean a different kind of summer. The days when they could spend most of June, July, and August outside might be dwindling, and parents and caregivers will probably have to change routines and activities to keep kids safe outside. Here’s what that future might look like—and how parents can make it as fun and normal as possible.

The science behind why extreme heat is dangerous for kids

Extreme heat is defined by doctors as temperatures of 95 degrees and above. It’s at that point that parents and caregivers need to limit the time kids spend outside to 30 minutes or less without a break, says Ahmad Bailony, a pediatrician at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center outside San Diego.

Bailony explains that when it’s hot outside, your body starts to heat up, too—for kids playing outdoors, that means their little muscles are producing even more heat. In normal temperatures, that’s healthy. But too much heat means their blood vessels dilate, which can slow blood flow and make the heart work harder to get blood to their organs, including the brain. That’s why an overheated child might seem confused or dizzy, or even faint.

If heat exposure continues, and the body’s core gets higher than 104 degrees, Bailony says heat stroke can set in. In this case, blood struggles even more to pass through a child’s body, depleting other organs of oxygen, which means they can be damaged. In addition, brain tissue can start to break down, allowing protein buildup in the brain that can cause swelling. If left untreated, heat stroke can lead to organ failure and death.

Many children also struggle to breathe while playing outside in extreme heat. High temperatures and sunlight break down air pollution into ozone, which causes little lungs and airways to swell. And that can lead to another health effect from more intense summers: childhood obesity.

“Kids exercise less because they can't go outside,” Bailony says. “That’s not a good combination, a world in which the temperature is rising and people are more out of shape.”

How kids’ summers are changing due to heat

Because scientists expect extremely hot summers to be the new normal, drastic changes are likely coming for how kids experience the outdoors.

Climate consultant Jamesine Rogers Gibson warns that if extreme summer temperatures continue, kids will have fewer days when they can be safely active outdoors. One USC study in California’s San Joaquin Valley, for example, predicted that children would experience an increase from 10 days a year when it’s not safe to play outside to 50 days a year by 2050.

That means camps and outdoor sports will have to make adjustments. Tiffany Pearsall, the founder of a forest school in Carson, Washington, that runs a summer program for preschoolers, already has.

“We didn’t get to go out in the woods very much because just the walk to get there was so hot, and we wouldn’t want anyone to be in a heat stroke situation before they got to the undercover of trees,” she says. “We also have creeks we like to play in, but it was so hot we couldn’t get there.”

Instead, kids got quick outdoor activities in the morning before they had to stay inside the rest of the day. Rogers Gibson says another option might be for camps to meet much earlier in the day, which will require an adjustment for parents.

Bailony says at this point, all sports teams and outdoor activity leaders should have thermometers on hand to check that kids’ temperatures don’t approach 104 degrees. But supervisors will also need to establish protocols for when it’s too hot to play.

“They’ll have to have Plan B, which might be moving the activity to a different time of day, a different location, or moving inside as long as it’s air conditioned,” Rogers Gibson says. “We’ll also need to train coaches, teachers, camp counselors, any supervising adults to recognize symptoms of heat illness and how and when to modify outdoor activities.”

Playgrounds might also look different. Although parks are generally cooler because of grass and shady trees, playgrounds can be the hottest parts of a park—“micro heat islands,” according to Vanos. That’s because playgrounds often are not in the shade and built with materials that absorb more heat, such as metal and rubber.

“And we want to avoid that,” she says.

Instead, future playgrounds could use natural products, like heat-absorbing wood chips, she says, and be built with lots of shade—ideally from trees but also shade sails. She also sees constructing parks and playgrounds in the path of prevailing winds to further cool off outdoor spaces.

Another alteration to parks and playgrounds: better lighting in anticipation of the change in play schedules to avoid daytime heat. “You can go to parks after sunset,” she says. “But that means cities need to make sure parks are well lit.”

As summer heat creeps into the months of May and September, school days—as well as classroom facilities—could also be impacted. Already, schools across the country that don’t have air conditioning sometimes have to cancel classes when it’s too hot, but making up too many of those days becomes problematic, Rogers Gibson says.

“Kids make up snow days in the summer, but when do you make up heat days?” she says. “Maybe it could be that school days become longer.”

To prevent lost (or longer) days, she predicts that local and state governments will invest money in building cooler schools. For example, some U.S. schools are adding solar panels over parking lots to both provide shade and help power the schools.

Other options for “cooler schools”: replacing asphalt with grass or mulch, planting trees for more shade, painting roofs lighter colors that reflect sunlight and don’t absorb as much heat, orienting buildings so they absorb less heat, and better insulating buildings so they’re more efficient.

Cool activities to still have fun outside

Parents and caregivers will have to be creative about finding cool activities that get kids outside when it’s safe. But activity experts who’ve already been dealing with heat waves have plenty of ideas.

“Children are resilient, and with proper supervision we can keep children safe when the weather gets hot,” Bernstein says.

Amelia McLaughlin, acting director of the Audubon Nature Preschool in Colorado, recommends utilizing nearby shade or water, which can be 5 to 8 degrees cooler.

Water especially provides lots of opportunities for fun, she says. Creek stomp days are popular at her school, as are bringing buckets and nets to look for crayfish and other small water creatures. You can build a dam with rocks, sand, and sticks—though be sure to dismantle the dam when you leave.

If you aren’t near water, try using sponges to play duck, duck, goose (drips for ducks, bigger squeezes for geese), she says. Or, bring a hose into a sandbox to explore waterways and dig trenches, or use the hose to make rainbows.

Lower-energy activities can also engage kids with the outside world. For instance, Phebe Meyers, community programs senior manager at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, recommends nature-journaling under a tree or watching clouds while lying in the grass. (Here’s an article about kids and journaling, and another about cloud-watching.)

Another activity: bird watching during cooler hours. “That’s not super strenuous and is a good way to get out and do a morning walk.” (Here are some ideas for birding as a family.)

Meyers knows this is the future for her kids, and that their summers will be different from what she experienced. But it’s important for her to figure out how to keep their summers as normal—and as fun—as possible.

“Once the heat wave broke, we could go outside again for now,” she says. “That’s what we live for.”

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