Ensuring children are healthy, happy and safe this summer

‘Child-led play provides opportunities for creativity, conflict-management, imagination and that feeling of freedom’

The school routine, while essential, can be tiring and tiresome for both parents and children. So everyone welcomes a break from the early morning alarm call followed by the ubiquitous chaos of searching for the missing uniform/PE kit/musical instrument etc that invariably forms a part of most school-day mornings.

But after the initial euphoria of sleeping past dawn wears off, many parents will develop a rising feeling of stress as they wonder how to keep their kids entertained over the long summer holidays.

However, experts say that boredom is good for children and we encourage them to create their own fun.

Child psychologist Peadar Maxwell says it’s important to “feel the sense of being bored as it makes us tap into our creativity and independence”.

“Parents don’t have to have some amazing activity for their child to do every day, but many children may have lost the skill to just go outside and seek a playmate or to get off their screens and be active,” he says. “The pandemic has made many of us screen dependent and some adults and children may have post-pandemic anxiety. So rather than just telling our kids to get active, imagine what they might do and have some ideas up your sleeve in case they are bored, screen preoccupied, or even a bit nervous about approaching another child or trying a new activity.

“Summer holidays, whether at home or away, are great opportunities to learn or get involved in something — bringing new skills and friendships into the new school year. Wholesome activities include a parent/child book club, finding new walking or cycling routes, planning for the beach or nature in any weather, turning your backyard into a cinema with a laptop (projector if you have access) and popcorn or having simple arts and crafts supplies in a box for a rainy day. And when we have good weather, seize the moment to get outside into the fresh air.”

Psychotherapist and author, Stella O’Malley agrees but says it is important for parents to encourage their children to use their own imagination, rather than ‘leading the fun’. “Play takes on a very different flavour when adults are involved,” she says. “If children can be left to their own devices they will often moan that they are bored for a while and then, so long as they aren’t given access to a screen, the golden moment happens and they inevitably find some fun things to do.

“Child-led play provides opportunities for creativity, for conflict-management, for imagination and that feeling of freedom and make-believe which adults can never emulate. This can take some time to happen and so parents are better off learning to wait before they charge in with adult-led play.”

Of course, playing outside is an essential part of childhood but experts warn that while we don’t have the warmest climate in the world, it is still vitally important to protect children’s skin from the sun as this will reduce their risk of skin cancer later in life.

If a child is badly sunburned three times or more before the age of 20, they double their risk of skin cancer as adults — and a recent report from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland found that 90 per cent of 10- to 17-year-olds say they have experienced sunburn in their lifetime.

Dr Katharine Harkin, a specialist in public health medicine, HSE National Cancer Control Programme, says “being sun smart” as a child can help prevent skin cancer in adulthood.

“The sun’s rays are strong enough to cause skin damage from April to September,” she says. “So protect yourself and your children’s skin from the sun by following the Healthy Ireland SunSmart steps:

  • Slip clothing on children that cover skin such as long sleeves, collared T-shirts;
  • Slop on sunscreen on exposed areas, using a factor 50+ for children;
  • Slap on a wide-brimmed hat;
  • Seek shade — especially if outdoors between 11am and 3pm — and always use a sunshade on a child’s buggy;
  • Slide on sunglasses to protect their eyes.

“Make a ‘sun-smart kit’ so have a bag at home near the door ready to protect your skin before you head out in the sun, which includes clothing that covers the skin, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and sunscreen of at least 30+ for adults and 50+ for children.”

Once we have taken all the necessary precautions for fun in the sun, Dr Fiona McGuire, GP and public health doctor, says we should encourage children to be active outdoors as much as possible over the summer holidays. And those over the age of three should be physically active for at least three hours a day, but it is important for parents to supervise as accidents can and do happen.

“Every summer, sadly, children die in drowning accidents,” she says. “We often think about pools and ponds when we think about water safety, but drowning can happen in the home or garden too. Containers left outside can fill with enough rainwater for a child to drown in, so it is important to empty, fence off or cover anything that can collect water.

“And while, we all love those days when we can dust off the paddling pools and let our children splash around in the sunshine, never let them play unsupervised near water and empty out the paddling pool once you are finished playing. Also, be careful on farms and fence off exposed areas like slurry pits. And if your child is in water (at the beach, a lake, or swimming pool), stay within arms reach of them and don’t let them play too long in cold water — take them out if they start shivering, get a cramp or if their lips change colour.”

Water safety is obviously crucial, but children can experience milder problems from tummy bugs as the warmer months see a rise in infections like cryptosporidium, campylobacter and nasty strains of E. coli which cause vomiting and diarrhoea. And Dr McGuire says some of the nastier strains of E. coli can cause serious illness in children and can even lead to kidney failure.

“The best way to protect from tummy bugs, vomiting and diarrhoea is to clean children’s hands often — after going to the toilet, before eating, after being in contact with animals and when their hands are visibly dirty,” she says. “Also, while a picnic is a lovely way to spend a sunny day, warm or even room-temperature food can help germs to thrive, so leave the picnic in the fridge until the last minute and bring a cool box with ice packs (such as frozen bottles of water which will thaw and be very refreshing) with you.

“Keep your fridge at 5 degrees or less and keep an eye on your children so they don’t touch raw meat or poultry as bacteria like campylobacter can spread and make them ill. Also, make sure food cooked on the barbeque (or anywhere else) is cooked through, especially burgers and chicken.

“And on another note, don’t let children eat around animals or put their hands into their mouths and make sure they wash their hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after all contact with animals.”

Making sure children don’t catch anything from our four-legged friends is important and Dr McGuire says it is also a good idea to be aware of insects.

“Teaching your child to stay calm around wasps and bees is important, as waving their arms or swatting may increase the risk of a sting,” she says. “Cover your child’s skin in loose cool clothing with long sleeves to help to reduce the risk of bites (and protect from the sun). Don’t use scented lotions or perfumes and not all insect repellents are suitable for small children, so check with your pharmacist if you are thinking of buying one.

“One of the side effects of climate change may be an increase in the number of ticks as milder weather helps them to survive — and some ticks in Ireland carry the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease. Tick bites don’t always hurt, so it’s important to check your child (and your pets) — check their skin, including their scalp, and also their clothes, after they have been outdoors, especially in wooded areas. If you do see a tick, make sure to remove it.”

The medical expert says hay fever is also an issue for many people and if children are suffering from sneezing, coughing and itchy or watery eyes, it is advisable to seek advice from your doctor or GP.

Then once, you have taken all the necessary precautions, have fun and make the most of the school free days.

FAMILY MEDICINE BOX ESSENTIALS

  1. Liquid paracetamol – In general liquid paracetamol is safe and an effective way to treat fever and pain in children.
  2. Liquid ibuprofen – this is also effective for treating fever or pain but is not suitable for children under 3 months. Don’t give it to your child if they have asthma unless your GP has told you it’s okay. In general, if your child has any medical conditions or allergies it’s best to check with your pharmacist or GP before giving them ibuprofen.
  3. Antihistamine liquid – this can help ease itching, hives and hay fever. Not all types of antihistamines are suitable for young children so always talk to your pharmacist.
  4. Hydrocortisone cream – this is a mild steroid cream that can be used to treat some types of skin irritation, eczema and insect bites. Never use it on your child’s face unless told to do so by your GP or pharmacist
  5. Talk to your pharmacist about over-the-counter medicines, and always read the label or packaging instructions. If your child’s symptoms deteriorate or are not improving, chat to your GP.
  6. For more information visit mychild.ie, hse.ie/sunsmart, safefood.net/food-safety-events
Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories