Are you familiar with your service’s sun smart policy? The Ministry of Education requires that all early learning services have a sun protection policy in place, and that all staff be made aware of it. As an early learning teacher, you need to know:
- why the policy is being implemented
- when sun protection needs to be used
- what sun protection measures are required (hats, clothing, sunscreen, shade and, if practical, sunglasses)
- how to model sun safety to the children in your care
Because young children’s skin is very susceptible to damage from ultraviolet radiation, as few as five incidents of severe sunburn in early childhood doubles the risk of those children developing melanoma later in life.
This is why it is essential for EC educators to model good sun-safe practices and ensure the children in their care are properly protected during outdoor play. This protection must include a hat, sensible clothing, sunscreen, shaded play areas and, when possible, sunglasses.
When UV Index levels reach 3 and above, sun protection measures need to be used when outside.
You can check the day’s UV rating by going to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) website. We have all heard it before, but it can be helpful to introduce the Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek and Slide protection measures to children at an early age. These include:
- SLIP on clothing that covers as much skin as possible. If you can see skin, UV can reach it. Encourage children and staff members to wear sun-safe, but lightweight clothing to ensure they are protected from UV rays, but also safe from overheating in warmer weather.
- SLOP on sunscreen. Sunscreen of SPF30 or higher should be applied to all uncovered areas of skin about 20 minutes before going outside. If possible, recommend to parents that they apply sunscreen to their children’s skin before drop-off, so they are safe to go outside to play straight away. Sunscreen should then be reapplied every two hours while outside, or more often if it has been washed or wiped off.
Babies under six months should not wear sunscreen. Instead, limit their time spent outdoors, and stick to shaded areas while also ensuring they are well covered with hats and safe clothing.
- SLAP on a hat that shades the face, neck and ears such as a wide-brimmed, bucket or legionnaire hat. Caps and visors do not provide enough protection and are not recommended.
- SEEK shade. Your service’s outdoor play area should include enough shade for all of the children in your care to play outside with appropriate protection. Shade can include shade cloths, trees, verandahs, pergolas, umbrellas, tents etc.
- SLIDE on a pair of wrap-around sunglasses. It can be very difficult to get young children to leave sunglasses on, and their eyes will generally be shaded by their hat and appropriate shade structures. However, if a child will keep sunglasses on, they are recommended.
It is not enough to use these protection measures on sunny days alone. Even on cool or cloudy days, UV radiation can still reach our skin without us realising it. Always check the day’s UV rating in the morning, to see if there is a danger in outdoor play, and act accordingly.
Children are more likely to happily use sun protection measures if they are modelled by the adults caring for them, so as educators it is essential that you are also seen by the children to be wearing a hat and appropriate clothing, putting on sunscreen and staying in the shade. Make it a part of everyone’s daily routine and the children will adopt these habits easily.
And don’t forget, with the weather warming up sun exposure is not the only danger to children playing out of doors. It’s also important to watch out for signs of heat exhaustion, heatstroke and dehydration, especially on really hot days when the children may be running around a lot.
Signs of dehydration include:
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Nausea or headaches
- Dark yellow or brown urine
- Fewer wet nappies or trips to the toilet than normal
- Dry lips, mouth, tongue and throat
Signs of heat exhaustion include:
- Irritability or looking unwell
- Pale and clammy skin
- Sleepy and floppy
- Dark yellow or brown urine
- Fewer wet nappies or trips to the toilet than usual
- Intense thirst
- Refusing to drink
- Dry skin, mouth and eyes (no tears when crying)
- Fontanelle on a baby’s head may be lower than usual
Signs of heatstroke include all of the above, plus:
- Rising body temperature
- Red, hot and dry skin
- Rapid breathing
- Coma (unconscious and non-responsive)
If a child in your care is exhibiting any of these more severe symptoms, you should contact 111 immediately. However, for milder cases of dehydration or heat exhaustion such as dizziness, nausea, headaches and irritability, take children indoors and out of the heat immediately.
Offer fluids to babies every ten to fifteen minutes and encourage older children to drink as much as they are able. Aim for at least 250ml of water or a rehydration solution every hour for children over 10kg. If a baby under six months of age is exhibiting any of these symptoms, contact a doctor immediately.
Keep affected children out of the heat and monitor their body temperature. If their temperature is elevated, contact a doctor and work to lower their temperature by removing excess clothing, wiping their skin with cool water, or whatever other means a medical professional recommends.
Prevention is always the best cure, however, which is why all ECEC services are required to have plans in place to keep children in their care protected from the sun and its effects all summer long.