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How to keep kids cool and sun safe at school

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In the middle of a summer heatwave, it's normal for parents and carers to worry about how their children are keeping cool and sun smart at school. However, sun safety should be an all-year-round consideration.

While many parents rely on temperature and sunshine to know when to use sun protection, it is actually ultraviolet radiation that is responsible for skin damage, which leads to an increased risk of skin cancer in adulthood. 

While we want our children to learn and play at school, we also want them to be safe. In Australia, UV radiation levels are high enough to damage skin even in winter. So, even when it's not hot outside, children should still step out into the playground protected from the sun. 

Here's how Australian schools encourage sun safety all year round and what parents can do to reinforce these messages at home. 

Why schools are an important place for sun safety 

As children are at school during the part of the day when UV rays are at their peak, schools play an important role in educating kids about sun protection behaviours and minimising their exposure. Minimising sun exposure by creating a sun-safe environment can significantly decrease a child's chance of developing skin cancer later in life. 

As UV rays remain a threat during the winter months, it's important that sun protection is provided during the colder months too. 

Learning about sun safety and skin cancer prevention will also help your child understand the importance of early detection of skin cancers in adulthood, such as melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. 

The first lesson children should learn about sun safety

Before your child even heads off to school, take the time to teach them the five ways to protect against skin cancer

  • Slip on clothes that cover arms and legs, such as shirts with long sleeves and long pants.
  • Slop on sunscreen and reapply it every 2 hours.
  • Slap on a broad-brimmed hat.
  • Seek shade when UV levels are at their highest.
  • Slide on close-fitting sunglasses.

Visit the Cancer Council website to teach your children this song about sun protection.  

Questions to ask your school about sun safety

It is up to individual schools to form and enforce a sun protection policy, so you should ask your school what sun protection measures they take and reinforce these sun protection behaviours at home.

Some strategies and guidelines your primary school should have in place to keep children safe in the sun include:

  • Providing children with areas to play in the shade. 
  • Encouraging students to wear sun-smart hats (for example, bucket-style or legionnaires hat) and sun-safe clothing (such as long sleeves and pants).
  • Providing sunscreen for children and encouraging them to reapply it every 2 hours.
  • Role modelling sun-safe practices by staff and the entire school community.
  • Allowing children to wear sunglasses when outside the classroom.
  • Teaching children about sun protection as a part of the curriculum (for example, how sunburn causes skin damage, steps to avoid sunburn, or the side effects of overexposure).
  • Scheduling outdoor activities outside of peak UV levels.

Don't forget to ask your school if they are a part of the National SunSmart School program

What parents can do to keep children sun safe at school

While they are at school, it is still a parent's duty to look after the health and well-being of their children by setting a positive example of sun safety in the home. Here are some ways to teach your child about sun protection in preparation for starting school. 

  • Encourage your children to play in the shade, as this can reduce UV exposure by up to 75%
  • Provide your children with a sports strap to help them keep their sunglasses on while at school and prevent them from being lost. The best sunglasses are close-fitting to prevent the sun from getting through the sides. 
  • Give your child a wide-brimmed hat for school that helps to protect their ears and neck. 
  • Dress children in lightweight, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Provide children with sun-safe swimming attire, such as a rash vest, during school swimming lessons.
  • Teach them about common sun safety myths and misconceptions. For example, that a tan looks 'healthy'. 
  • Teach children how to apply their own sunscreen and make it a part of their morning routine. Encourage them to reapply sunscreen every few hours. 
  • Be a role model by taking skin cancer prevention seriously! 

A note about sunscreen policies

Teachers can't apply sunscreen to all of their students, so it's important that your child gets lots of practice before starting school so that they can apply it themselves. 

Even if your school provides sunscreen, it's a good idea to send your child along with their own so they can reapply it as necessary. Attach it to their bag or put it in their lunchbox so that they will remember. 

Also, don't forget to ask your school if they use any procedures to remind your child to reapply sunscreen during the day, such as a sunscreen buddy system. 

Set a good example with skin cancer prevention

Protecting yourself from skin damage and lowering your skin cancer risk by wearing sunscreen and a hat aren't the only ways parents can be good sun safety role models for their families. Having your skin checked regularly is just as important, especially when it comes to early detection. 

To find out more about skin cancer prevention, detection and treatment, find a Sun Doctors clinic near you or book a Skin Care check here

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