Extreme Heat Poses Risks to Youth Recreation

A child shades their eyes while holding a water bottle

Spring is here, which means it’s the time of year when temperatures start rising and lots of people start spending more time outside. While there are many fun outdoor activities available year round, warmer weather often brings people out into the sunshine to enjoy local parks, greenways, and bodies of water. Unfortunately, the tough reality of spring and summer is that extreme heat can often make outdoor recreation risky, especially for vulnerable groups like youth.

Kids ride scooters down a tree-lined path

Heat has become an annual danger and was a factor in almost 2,000 deaths in 2023 in the U.S. While extreme heat is part of the long-term effects of climate change, there are strategies available to more immediately mitigate its impact. For example, introducing trees and vegetation into our landscapes can significantly cool surrounding areas and offer spaces of reprieve from the heat. Designing outdoor spaces to include shade and cooler ground surfaces can reduce the stress human bodies feel when exposed to high temperatures. This is especially important for people without consistent access to air conditioning like those facing housing or energy insecurity.

Two hands plant a tree in the ground

A variety of strategies exist for introducing cooling vegetation into overheated landscapes. One approach is to design new projects with extreme heat in mind. Many landscape architects include climate mitigation strategies and green design principles in their work. These strategies include flood barriers, increased tree canopies, and the reduction of hardscapes. In other cases, communities are mobilizing to adapt existing neighborhoods and parks by introducing more shade and vegetation through tree planting programs. Other municipalities are crafting shade master plans and pushing for policy change to address this dangerous phenomenon. 

An adult and child smile at each other in a green park

Regardless of the approach, it’s important for efforts to be driven by community engagement. In many cases, tree cover and greenspace are more abundant in whiter and more affluent areas while communities of color and low income neighborhoods are left without shade and vegetation. Meaningful community engagement built into all stages of a heat mitigation project can help address equity issues. Cohesion between proximate projects is also helpful. Greenspaces and tree clusters that are connected to other parks and patches of vegetation have a greater impact than an isolated area of shade or green ground cover. Further, connectivity promotes habitat security for local wildlife and can allow access to greenspace for multiple neighborhoods and communities. 

Farm workers walk in a line down rows of crops

Finally, extreme heat often gets more attention in urban environments, but many rural agricultural communities are facing the temperature effects of tree removal just as much as cities. Large-scale farming operations often remove trees to make way for crops and machinery. While rural communities are sometimes assumed to have greater access to greenspace, a lack of tree canopy in environments dominated by agriculture can create heat islands similar to those found in urban areas. Agricultural workers are especially prone to harm from extreme heat because of the nature of their work and a lack of access to shade and air conditioning. 

Children splash and play in water

Extreme heat is a complex problem that impacts many groups and industries, including outdoor youth programming. On hot days, kids are often kept inside during school, extracurricular programming, and at home in order to protect them from harm. This means that they’re missing out on the opportunity to explore, connect with nature, and play freely. We need to address climate change at a larger scale, introduce immediate heat mitigation strategies, and get creative about how to keep kids safe while continuing to provide access to fun and meaningful outdoor experiences all year round.