The days are lengthening, spring is in the air and soon we will all be galloping around with our shirtsleeves rolled up and parts of our bodies bared to the elements. Why? Because there are few of us who can resist the lure of a suntan. And that goes for children too.
Last year, a MORI poll for the Cancer Research Campaign found that nearly 60 per cent of eight to 10-year-olds thought a suntan made them look "cool", in contrast to 40 per cent who wanted to be thin. The organisation's director general, Professor Gordon McVie, said at the time:
"Unless attitudes change, skin cancer could overtake anorexia as the biggest new threat to our children in the next decades."
Our cavalier approach to sun safety is extraordinary when you consider that over the past few years medical evidence has offered us a compelling picture of self damage that no rational person can afford to ignore:
* skin cancer is now the second most common form of cancer; * since 1974 cases have nearly doubled to 40,000; * around 2,000 people will die of skin cancer this year; * the effects of global warming and the thinning of the ozone layer means the incidence of sun-related cancers will in-crease by 10 per cent over the next 50 years; * if a child gets sunburn when the skin is pale and soft, the risk of getting malignant melanomas increases considerably.
Research has established that we get 50 per cent of our lifetime exposure to direct sunlight in the first 20 years of life, which makes young people frighteningly vulnerable to an illness that might kill them and which is avoidable. The Cancer Research Campaign estimates that children spend three times as much time outside in the sun as adults. All it takes is six bouts of sunburn when you are young to double your chance of getting skin cancer in later life.
In spite of these statistics, come summer, school playgrounds and playing fields willbe full of young people dashing about without hats or sunscreens, and with little or no shade,during the most dangerous time of the day: 11.30am to 3pm.
For schools, logistics make smearing high factor sun block over innumerable children a non-starter, as are hats and long sleeves. A sensible option would be to provide a shaded area that every child can use during break times.
At Blagdon Primary School in Bristol the children have exactly that. Looking not unlike a scaled-down version of Lord's Cricket Ground's futuristic marquee stand, Blagdon's tent-effect play area has room enough for benches and tables underneath. It has been designed by a local company, Architen, especially for this purpose. It is made from timber and brightly painted steel with a translucent fabric roof and comes in a kit form, complete with DIY instructions, to keep costs down. The canopy kits are flexible, too, and can be grouped together to cover larger areas.
"We wanted the units to be modular so that schools can add to them if they need to," says Kevin Hemmings of Architen. The company is working on further refinements such as an inclusive base, which would make the structure easy to relocate, and removable side walls made of fabric or see-through mesh, which would provide extra weather protection and even something to hang teaching materials on.
Gill Jones, Blagdon's headteacher says: "With current concerns about the need to provide shaded areas in school playgrounds, we wanted to provide our children with a structure that will give shade in summer and weather protection in winter without obstructing the playground. We think this meets our requirements very well."
A similar unit measuring 3.5 metres square would cost about pound;4,000 (installation extra). Blagdon's was funded by donations from parents, local residents and businesses.
The Shady Seating Company is another business to have responded to concerns about children's exposure to sunshine. It offers a range of brightly coloured playground shelters for junior and infant schools. The company can design and build to particular specifications, or a school can select a unit "off-the-shelf".
The shelters are steel-framed with recycled plastic or steel seats. The canopies are reminiscent of fairground carousels and each unit in the range is refreshingly different - some have circular seating arrangements, others have benches in the shape of a cross or a star.
The cheapest is the least attractive - a bus station look-alike for pound;1,595 (including installation) - but one of the most elaborate, an ocatagonal unit with a central seat, for between 30 and 36 children (depending on their age and size), costs around pound;4,250 (including installation).
* Architen, Rickford, Bristol BS40 7AHTel: 01761 462080; fax: 01761 462557 * The Shady Seating Company, 125 Binley Road, Coventry, Warwickshire V3 1HX Telfax: 01203 456513