Last reviewed 28 June 2019

Now that the summer months are upon us, early years providers must ensure that they take the necessary steps to keep children safe in the hot weather. Elizabeth Walker looks at the issues involved.

Dangers of the heat and sun

Over exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light radiation from the sun causes sunburn, eye and skin damage and children can be at risk within 15 minutes of being exposed to strong sunlight. Apart from being painful, sunburn during childhood significantly increases the risk of developing skin cancer in later life and it is essential that early years providers take precautionary measures to keep children safe in the sun.

High temperatures both outdoors and indoors may also harm children’s health. Children cannot control their body temperature as efficiently as adults during hot weather because they do not sweat as much and can be at risk from heat-related illness ranging from mild heat stress to potentially life-threatening heatstroke.

Sun and heat protection

In the UK, the risk of getting sunburn is highest from March to October, particularly from 11am to 3pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest. It is also possible to burn in cloudy and cool weather so early years staff must be aware of the need for sun protection in different conditions.

During warm, sunny weather children over six months should:

  • cover up with lightweight clothing that gives good coverage to the body

  • wear a wide-brimmed hat that covers the face, neck and ears

  • wear sunglasses that protect against UVA and UVB rays

  • use sunscreen and reapply it regularly throughout the day; experts recommend a high-factor sunscreen such as 50+ and one with a broad spectrum which blocks both UVB and UVA rays

  • spend time in the shade, such as under a tree or umbrella, or in a sun tent; early years providers must ensure that their outdoor space has sufficient shade so that children can play outside safely in hot weather

  • not take part in vigorous physical activity on very hot days.

Babies younger than six months should be kept out of direct sunlight as their skin is particularly sensitive. They should wear lightweight clothing and sunscreen should still be applied to any small areas that are exposed such as their face and hands.

Dehydration is also a big risk in the heat and staff must provide children with plenty of cool water and encourage them to drink more than usual in hot conditions. Staff should also look out for signs of heat stress and heat exhaustion such as irritability, confusion, tiredness, dizziness, hot red skin, headache, nausea and vomiting. If left untreated, these symptoms can lead to heatstroke which is potentially very serious or life threatening. Further guidance for early years practitioners on Looking after Children and Those in Early Years Settings During Heatwaves has been published by Public Health England.

Early years staff also need to be aware of the importance of protecting themselves from the sun and rising temperatures. Since children learn best from positive role models, staff must practise sun safety every day too.

Protecting children indoors

Children are also at risk from high temperatures indoors and practitioners should take the following steps.

  • Open windows as early as possible in the morning before children arrive, or overnight if possible, to allow stored heat to escape from the building.

  • Almost close windows when the outdoor air becomes warmer than the air indoors — this should help keep the heat out while allowing adequate ventilation.

  • Use outdoor sun awnings if available, or close indoor blinds/curtains, but do not let them block window ventilation.

  • Keep the use of electric lighting to a minimum.

  • Switch off all electrical equipment, including computers, monitors and printers when not in use — equipment should not be left in “standby mode” as this generates heat.

  • If possible, use those rooms or other spaces which are less likely to overheat, and adjust the layout to avoid direct sunlight on children.

  • Oscillating mechanical fans can be used to increase air movement if temperatures are below 35°C; at temperatures above 35°C fans may not prevent heat-related illness and may worsen dehydration.

  • Encourage children to eat normally and drink plenty of cool water.

Further information on reducing temperatures can be found in Public Health England’s Heatwave Plan for England.

Treating children

Sunburn may take two to four hours after sun exposure to fully develop. Accidental sunburn must be treated with care and staff can help to relieve symptoms by:

  • cooling the skin with a cold pad as this will ease the burning sensation

  • giving the child lots of fluid such as water or fruit juice to hydrate them

  • giving age appropriate pain medication if necessary

  • using after sun lotions.

As with all accidents, parents must be notified if their child has suffered sunburn during their time at nursery.

If a child is suffering from heat illness, staff should immediately take the following steps to reduce their body temperature.

  • Move the child to as cool a room as possible and encourage them to drink cool water.

  • Cool the child as rapidly as possible, using methods such as sponging or spraying the child with cool (25–30°C) water. If available, place cold packs around the neck and armpits, or wrap the child in a cool, wet sheet and assist cooling with a fan.

If the child does not respond to the above treatment within 30 minutes, an ambulance should be called.

Sun safety policy

All providers should develop an effective sun safety policy which sets out how children and staff will be protected from the harmful effects of the sun. It is important to involve members of staff and parents when developing the policy and it should be reviewed regularly. A sun safety policy should cover:

  • how the provision enables children and staff to stay safe in the sun, eg the use of hats, clothing, shade, accessible drinking water, etc

  • the use and application of sunscreen — who will provide sunscreen and when will it be applied; parents should sign a form to give staff permission to apply sun cream to children throughout the day

  • how long children spend outside at different times of day

  • whether sun safety is covered in learning activities

  • how sun safety is promoted to families

  • staff training.

Advice on developing a sun protection policy is available from the Cancer Research UK website.

You can find a template Sun Safety Policy here.

Good practice and action points

Early years providers should:

  • provide an environment that enables children and staff to stay safe in the sun

  • work in partnership with staff and parents to reinforce awareness about sun safety and promote a healthy nursery

  • use learning activities about sun safety to increase knowledge and influence behaviour

  • ensure staff act as positive role models by wearing suitable clothing, hats and sunscreen, drinking plenty and keeping in the shade whenever possible

  • develop an effective sun safety policy and share it with parents and staff, ensuring it is regularly reviewed and updated

  • provide staff training on sun safety.