Youth Outdoor Recreation in an Era of Extreme Heat

a young girl holds a water bottle on a hot day

Recent heatwaves in Europe, North America, and many other parts of the world serve as examples of the troubling weather patterns that are on the rise as a result of climate change. 15 of the 16 warmest years on record across the globe have occurred since 2000. We should expect to see this pattern continue to worsen in future years. That means we’ll set new record high temperatures as well as experience more hot days each summer. While combatting climate change at a large scale is an important response to these heatwaves, we also need to prepare ourselves for the reality of dealing with extreme heat in our daily lives.

a child runs across a lawn at the park in a pink dress

Summer is a great season to spend lots of time in the outdoors with the kids in our lives, but it’s also becoming a dangerous time of year marked by wildfires, severe storms, and very high temperatures. We want the young people we work with and care for to continue to reap the mental and physical health benefits of spending time in nature all year long, but it’s important to take measures to keep them safe from extreme heat. Children, as well as other vulnerable populations like the elderly, are at a higher risk for heat-related illnesses than other groups. Children with pre-existing health conditions are especially prone to experience the negative effects of extreme heat.

a boy stands on a tennis court with a racket and ball

Programs that spend lots of time outside with youth should be prepared to deal with extreme heat, especially recreation programs that engage in physical activity outdoors. Youth outdoor recreation programs should have heat protocols in place to keep kids safe. Those guidelines will look different for each organization based on program activities, location, and the participant population, but the principles outlined below are a good place to start.

a child runs through a water play feature

1. Stay updated on the forecast. Don’t let high temperatures surprise you. Check the forecast regularly so you can plan programming around heat and then make changes as necessary. Local governments will often issue extreme heat warnings that offer guidance on what kinds of activities are and are not appropriate given the temperature.

2. Take breaks from the heat. Whether kids in your program are hiking, playing basketball, running, or just playing outside, it’s important to ensure that everyone is taking adequate breaks from rigorous activities on hot days. This could look like eating a snack in the shade, heading into some air conditioning during the hottest part of the day, or taking a dip in a pool or body of water. There’s lots of ways to have fun while also helping kids cool off and catch their breath. Additionally, consider running programs in the morning or evening to avoid the most intense heat of the day.

3. Have a backup plan. When the temperature gets too extreme, don’t push through. Instead, change your plans. This might mean moving activities to an air-conditioned facility or switching which activity participants do on a particularly hot day. In addition, power outages can be associated with heat waves so have a backup location in mind for kids to cool off and rest if your facility loses power.

4. Always have water available. Hydration and water breaks are key. Young athletes, campers, or recreationists should not have their water intake limited or be refused regular water breaks. Have water available to all program participants and build water breaks into the day’s schedule. Counselors, coaches, or program leaders can help make good hydration habits fun for young kids through games and group activities that involve drinking water.

5. Know how to recognize heatstroke. Familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of heatstroke and make sure anyone in charge of caring for kids outside can also recognize heat-related illnesses. Overheating can be very dangerous, especially among young people, but heatstroke can be reversed if caught early enough. Knowing when to get help for a child in distress from extreme heat is an important way to prevent serious illness or even a fatality during a heatwave.

a family with several children walks along a trail together in dry grass

There are lots of reasons to have hope that we will be able to mitigate impacts of global climate change, including extreme heat. But for the moment, we need to take steps to be ready for hot summer days while still doing the important work of getting kids active in the outdoors. Be sure to think ahead and have a plan in place for when extreme heat hits your area.