Margaret Collins looks at ways to raise children’s awareness of sun protection.

Skin types and sun protection

Some of the information given here is specific to those with fair skins. Children with darker skins still need some form of protection. There is a useful guide to the five different skin types, the likely ethnic origin for each one and the appropriate levels of sun protection.

Having a suntan is seen by many as a desirable and fashionable accessory. Behaviour patterns learned in childhood stand a good chance of being adhered to in later life, so in order to change this learned desire for those with fair skins to become brown we need to start with the youngest children and their parents or carers.

However, this is the time of year to start a sun-safe programme for all young children. If you can involve your children in taking responsibility for keeping themselves safe in the sun, and not just responding to adult warnings or following adults’ instructions – put you hat on, stay in the shade, come here whilst I put this cream on you, and so on – you will be onto a winner.

 Start where the children are; find out what they know and add to their knowledge.

Circle time

Set the scene in circle time before doing a simple draw and talk exercise.With the whole group ask them to think of themselves playing at the seaside (adapt this scenario to match your children’s life experiences) on a hot and sunny day. Ask them to think of the things they will take with them. Can they make a picture in their heads of themselves in the sunshine at the seaside? Tell them to try to remember this picture as you will be asking them to draw it later.

Draw and talk

In small groups, ask the children to draw the picture about being at the seaside on a hot and sunny day. As each child finishes ask him to come to an adult and talk privately about their picture and respond to these prompts:

  • What are you taking to the seaside?
  • Who is with you there?
  • What are you wearing?
  • What are you doing to keep safe in the sun?

Look at their pictures and note any responses about sun-safe behaviour, for example, wearing a T-shirt, hat or sun-cream, playing in the shade, wearing sunglasses, drinking water. This is your baseline data; you can count the numbers of children who mention each of the sun-safe behaviours. Keep these pictures safe for later.

Circle time

In circle time again, talk about sunburn, asking who has been suntanned and who has been sunburnt. Which is best? How can you make sure you don’t get burnt?

Tell the children that there are at least six things they can do to keep themselves safe from the sun and ask if they can think of one of them. Make a collection of objects to show the children as you mention each one. As the children respond, expand what they say with this kind of information.

  • Sun-cream – this has to be more than factor 15 so talk about looking at their cream when they get home and finding the number; draw their attention to your number line, finding 15 and numbers larger and smaller. If their sun-cream is less than 15 perhaps they could ask Mum/carer to get a higher number next time. Explain that sun-cream isn’t magic and doesn’t protect against all the sun’s rays (only 90% in fact). Say it’s the same as 10 rays hitting the skin, nine being bounced back but one of them getting through.
  • Sunglasses – explain that these are only good if they are UV (ultra violet) protected. Much better for children not to wear sunglasses if they are not UV protected. (Sunglasses that are just dark and not UV protected can harm eyes as they trick the eye into opening up and allow rays to enter.) Remind them never, never to look at the sun directly even when wearing glasses.
  • Hats – talk about sunhats and the importance of wearing any kind of hat. Explain that the legionnaire kind with a back/ears flap is best because it protects their ears and neck. Hats should be made of thick fabric to stop the sun’s rays from getting through.
  • Shade – any kind of shade – talk about shade as being shadows. What kinds of things make shade or shadows? The children are usually happy to supply examples – parasols, sun umbrellas, tents, gazebos, trees, shade from buildings, stay indoors etc. Tell them that they can’t possibly get burnt if they stay in the shade.
  • Cover up – T-shirts – rarely do they guess this way of protecting their skin. Explain that it’s best to keep clothes on – better than sun-cream – as this really keeps their skin safe from getting burnt.
  • Water – talk about the importance of drinking lots of water when it’s hot and sunny. Explain that playing in water when they are hot seems to cool them down but that the sun’s rays can go through water and can still burn their skin.

Ask children which they think is the best way of protecting the skin and they usually say shade or T shirts. Sun-cream is the least effective way. As the sun’s rays pass through water, swimming is no protection from the sun unless they have waterproof sun-cream or T-shirts on. They could try ordering the objects you have put together, showing their level of protection, from highest to lowest.


Do the draw and talk activity again and you’ll surely find that more children are mentioning sun-cream, hats, T-shirts and so on. This is your evaluation, telling you and them what a lot they have learned. Make a chart of the different responses from the before and after draw and talk.

Some other activities you can try

  • Ask the children to help you to make a class picture of the seaside and make sure that they include all the ways of keeping safe from the sun.
  • Why not learn a sunsafe song, such as the ‘Daisy’ song below? These kinds of songs are often remembered and hopefully the message will be too.
  • Talk about sun protection when you read picture storybooks such as:
    Harry by the Sea, G Zion, Puffin ISBN 0140500251
    WhoWill Be the Sun, J Troughton, Blackie, ISBN 0216917204

    Topsy and Tim at the Seaside, J and G Adamson, Blackie,

    ISBN0 2169 11575

To sum up

Those who treat skin cancers tell us that it is now thought that children who are burned by the sun in early childhood are more likely to suffer skin cancers in later years. It is essential to help children to understand that they must protect their skin. If you ask the children whose job it is to take care of their skin in the sun, they usually say ‘parents or grown-ups’. Tell them no, that it is their own job to do this and to remind their grown-ups about sun protection.

For more information, see below. For other up-to-date resources, contact the Health Education Authority, your school nurses, Wessex Cancer Trust or other cancer organisations such as Cancer Research UK.

Sun science activities

To learn more about the sun and its effects try some of the following sunny day science activities. Use these opportunities to pose questions, think up potential results and wonder why it is happening.
All of these form part of the Knowledge and Understanding of the World area of learning from the Foundation Stage Guidance.

Exploration and investigation
Early Learning Goals: Look closely at similarities, differences, patterns and change Ask questions about why things happen

Stepping Stones:
Talk about what is seen and what is happening

Show an awareness of change

Disappearing puddles

Take a cupful of water and tip it out on the path or other hard surface, quickly draw a line to mark the edges of the puddle, using chalk. Use a timer to measure how long it takes to disappear. Watch the puddle shrink. Compare puddles in the shade with those in bright sun. Compare puddles made first thing in the morning with those made mid-day and then again later in the afternoon. When is the sun hottest? What are the hottest parts of the grounds? Using a cup to measure equal amounts of water each time makes it a ‘fair test’.

Flower power

Some flowers respond clearly to the sun. Osteospermum and mesembryanthemum open their daisy-like petals wide when in bright sun, but remain closed up on duller days. Plant two of these into sturdy pots and place one pot in bright sun and leave one in the shade. What happens?

 Look closely, observe differences and ask questions about what is happening. Swap the two pots over. What happens to the open flowers when they are in the shade, and the closed ones when they feel the warm sun on them?

Colour changing

Rig up a washing line in bright sun. Children can take some different kinds and colours of paper and fold each sheet and peg it on to the line. Sugar papers should fade, some white papers will scorch – but the inside of the folded paper should remain as it was. There may be marks where the peg has protected the original colour from the sun. Talk about what you see, why it has happened and remind children of the strength of the sun’s rays.

Daisy – a sunsafe song

Hiltingbury Infant school in Hampshire had a ‘Daisy Day’ outside on their field last year to raise awareness about sun safety. Classes played ring games, made ‘daisy’ chains of children (holding hands and dancing or running over the grass) and sang their home made song:

Daisy, Daisy, playing outside is fun In the sum-mer it’s lovely to be in the sun. BUT We mustn’t forget our sun hats And put on some cream, slip slop slap And if it’s too hot Find a shady spot

To keep safe from the burning sun!

Actions – You can probably think of better ones!
BUT is louder and point a finger Mime putting on sun hats

slip slop slap –mime putting cream on arms,

Shady spot

– mime under a tree

Information for parents

Help parents to know that:

  • ultra violet (UV) rays are the damaging rays
  • UVA rays are aging to the skin
  • UVB rays are the ones that burn
  • the sun’s rays can pass through cloud, light shade and water
  • children’s skin can get burned in woodland light shade, on cloudy days, when under water.

Sun protection factor

Sun cream comes in various strengths. This strength is measured as SPF – sun protection factor and its usefulness depends on the kind of skin.

SPF of 15 means that the skin is protected for 15 times its normal burning time. For example, if your child’s skin will burn in five minutes of hot sun, SPF 15 will protect it for 5 x 15 – 75 minutes (one and a quarter hours). If it is rubbed off it should be re-applied. After this time the skin will start to burn no matter how often you re-apply the cream. Always use at least SPF 15 on children’s skin.

Visit for latest details on skin cancer, resources and activities.

SunSmart campaign key messages

 Stay in the shade between 11am-3pm Make sure you never burn Always cover up with a T shirt, wide brimmed hat and sunglasses Remember to take extra care with children’s skin

Use factor 15 plus sunscreen