Communication and language: Stay cool

Hilary White outlines how to discuss three key aspects of sun safety – the difference between sunshine and shade, the effects of the sun and sun protection strategies.

Hilary White

‘Soaking up the sun’ sounds appealing for adults and children alike, particularly after the long, grey winter months. Playing and working outside as much as possible is part of a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, and should be regarded as a basic right for every child.

It is, however, necessary for us to stay comfortable whatever the weather, and being safe in the sun is particularly important. While the responsibility for sun safety always lies with adults, we can start helping children to discover why the sun needs to be treated with respect and how to protect ourselves throughout the summer months.

Playing and exploring

  • Children explore sunshine, shade and the effects of the sun
  • Practitioners encourage children to practise applying sunscreen
  • Children are introduced to different sun protection items and strategies.

Introducing sun protection

Introduce sun screen, explore and discuss its colour, texture and smell and practise rubbing dots of cream into arms. Make up your own Heads, shoulders, knees and toes song to cover the body parts we might forget when applying sunscreen. Introduce and talk about sun hats, sunglasses and water bottles.

The ‘sun safety’ game

Present a bottle of sunscreen along with two other familiar items, such as a honey jar and a milk carton. Ask the children – ‘which do I rub on my skin to stay safe in the sun?’

Follow a similar format with sunglasses, sun hats and water bottles.

Shady spots and shelters

Mark shadows with chalk and discuss how they change throughout the day. Play games jumping on each other's shadows. Work together to make a ‘shady spot’ map of the garden and build your own ‘shady shelter’.

What practitioners can do

  • Aim to help children become sun safety aware, without also making them fearful of the sun

  • Provide mineral-based sunscreen in the setting – just as effective as chemical-based creams and much kinder to humans and sea life

  • It is good practice to issue a sun safety policy. As part of the policy, request parental written permission for practitioners to apply sunscreen

  • Legionnaire-style caps or wide brimmed hats protect faces and necks. Set up a system whereby parents can purchase appropriate hats through the setting

  • Cover as much skin as possible with loose, tightly woven pale coloured clothing. The collars on polo-style shirts help to shield necks from the sun

  • Although we are encouraging children to practise applying sunscreen, adults must always take overall responsibility for checking they are properly protected before going outdoors.

  • Bear in mind that sunburn can occur even on cloudy days. The sun is at its strongest from March to October, between the hours of 11.00 am and 3.00 pm. For NHS sun safety advice, visit

‘Sun change’ experiments

Look at how the sun changes things. Put some cut greenery in the sunshine and observe what happens. Leave pebbles in sun and shade, and compare their temperatures (use wood if pebbles get too hot).

Can children talk about the differences between sunshine and shade, and do they explore sun safety items and strategies with interest? Are they able to explain reasons for their choices in the ‘sun safety’ game, and discuss the process of building a shady shelter?

Active learning

  • Children and practitioners discuss the reasons for sun safety strategies
  • Practitioners help children to understand the goal of each sun safety activity.
  • Children work together to manage the challenges of building a shady shelter

Discuss the reasons for sun safety and the ways in which sunscreen, sunglasses, sun hats, water bottles and shady spots help us to stay safe throughout the summer months. Encourage children to observe carefully what happens to sunscreen when it is applied to skin, and how to judge whether it has been rubbed in sufficiently. Spark interest in sun hats by offering a fun and appealing selection for children to choose from. Look at and talk about what features make a safe and protective sun hat.

Support children's motivation by discussing the aims of each goal-orientated activity.

For example, observing over time to see what happens to greenery left in the sun, or the reasons for building a shady shelter. Give children as much freedom as possible to create their shady shelter. Encourage them to work together and discuss solutions to difficulties such as how to create a roof for the shelter, or how to build a shelter big enough for more than a couple of children. Let them decorate their shelter and take pride in using it.

Do children understand the importance of being safe in the sun? Can they use different sun safety strategies appropriately, such as choosing a sun hat to wear? Do they understand the goal of building a shady shelter and can they stay focused on the task to completion?

Creating and thinking critically

  • Children plan and review the construction of their shady shelter
  • Practitioners help children to compare outdoor shady spots
  • Children predict how the sun might affect items and substances

Encourage children to discuss and explore shelter building resources, and plan how to build their shelter. Help them to think about and test materials with questions such as: ‘Which makes the best roof to protect us from the sun, the netting or the tarpaulin?’ Discuss how effectively the shelter shields children from the sun and make changes if necessary.

Compare the heat of the sun with the relative coolness of a shady spot and discuss which are the best shady spots in the garden. For example, does the gazebo offer more shade than the tree? Is it cooler under the bushes or beside the garden shed? Which spot is each child's favourite, and do certain spots work better for particular activities?

Encourage children to create their own activities in different shady spots, such as small world play settings under the bushes. Encourage them to predict what will happen to items left in the sun. Talk about and compare ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos, and help children to discover that the sun can have a powerful (and not always positive) effect on certain items and substances.

How effectively can children assess and adapt their shady shelter, to ensure that it's fit for purpose? Can they decide which shady spot gives the best protection from the sun?

Enabling environments

Provide a wide selection of different sun hats for children to explore independently, and add other sun safety props such as empty sun screen bottles and parasols. Laminate photos of the ‘sun safety game’ items (see Playing and exploring) and make them available for children to talk about and sort. Provide resources for children to create their own makeshift shady shelters throughout the garden. Put up labelled posters both indoors and outdoors, reminding children about the various sun safety strategies you have explored. Set up resources for child-initiated ‘sun changes’ experiments (see Playing and exploring), and encourage them to find their own items to investigate.

EYFS Early Learning Goals

Building a shady shelter meets the Expressive arts and design objectives: ‘beginning to construct, stacking blocks vertically and horizontally, making enclosures and creating spaces and constructs with a purpose in mind, using a variety of resources’. Examining how the sun affects items and substances introduces the concept of change, while observing shadows and making a ‘shady spot’ map encourages children to explore their physical environment (UTW).

Useful resources

Key learning points

  • Learning the difference between sunshine and shade
  • Identifying shady spots and creating shady shelters
  • Exploring the effects of sun on items and substances
  • Discovering different sun safety strategies
  • Practising how to apply sun screen

Key words:

  • Sun safety, sun screen, sun hat, shade, shelter

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