Designing cooler, healthier, more equitable playgrounds

Jennifer Vanos, ASU School of Sustainability

"There's a lot of benefits to bringing natural spaces into urban areas in addition to the different types of learning opportunities this type of space can provide."

- Jennifer Vanos, KER Fellow 2019


Many school playgrounds are sited near heavily-trafficked roadways and often exhibit small heat islands. The artificial design of many playspaces, in addition to urbanization and climate change, are exacerbating these environmental extremes, raising concerns for children's overall health, well-being, learning, and behavior at school.

Research questions

  • What small-scale design interventions can holistically support healthier play environments for children in a hot, dry, desert climate?

  • How can we think broader to enhance the inherent value of play spaces beyond convectional thinking to design spaces that allow for adequate physical activity, active learning, creativity, growing food, and a healthy environment, among other attributes?

  • What designs are optimal to decrease harmful environmental exposures to pollution, heat, and sunlight to ensure safe play?

Methods and findings

Vanos worked with Paideia Academies to use innovative and sustainable solutions to redesign two playspaces to become natural play and learning environments, which exhibit miniature landscapes full of compelling play and learning opportunities ready to be discovered by children. The designs included grass, trees, hedges, mulch, hills, tunnels, caves, walls, gardens, and a sand box. They also included a small weather station on the playspace roof to measure temperature, humidity, radiation, wind speed, nitrous dioxide and particulate matter. Vanos and her partners worked across disciplines and sectors to ensure that the designs fit the needs of the scholar and bridged important health equity gaps not currently assessed by schools, districts, and communities. The project underscored the value of open communication with children, parents, and teachers in the design process and of using local environmental knowledge (including air quality and weather patterns) for effective design.


  • Paideia Academies


This ongoing evidence-based research could shift the paradigm of playground design to improve health usability, reduce harmful exposures, and leverage valuable space to advance health equity and resilience.


Vanos's project resulted in a 17,000 square-foot sustainable playground at Paideia Academy and Preschool in Phoenix.

Jennifer Vanos

A Portrait of Jennifer Vanos

Assistant Professor
ASU School of Sustainability

Impact Scholar 2022–2024; Academic Fellow 2019

Jennifer Vanos is an assistant professor. Her research involves measurement and modeling of atmospheric and physiologic parameters to understand links between urban climate, design, and human health. She is a member of the Urban Climate Research Center studying sustainable and healthy urban spaces with an emphasis on extreme heat, air pollution, and children’s health.