Most of us are well aware of the potential negative effects of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays – from premature ageing to eye damage to skin cancer. But for all the bad press our sun gets, it also has many benefits, which are especially important in children’s development too.
In South Africa, we’re lucky to have an abundance of sunshine, with an average of around 2 500 hours of sunlight a year. So unlike some Northern Hemisphere countries, accessing the sun here is simple, easy and free. As we enter spring and the start of our real sunshine months, Fedhealth shares five benefits sunshine has for your children:
It helps with vitamin D production
Did you know that around 90% of the body’s vitamin D is produced by the body when sunlight hits the skin? Vitamin D plays a hugely important role in children’s growing bodies – most importantly, it helps them absorb calcium, which is essential for healthy development of teeth and bones. Vitamin D also helps their bodies absorb other minerals like zinc and magnesium, and it can help moderate cell growth, boost immune system functioning and reduce inflammation.
It boosts their immune system
In addition to vitamin D boosting the immune system, sunlight has also been shown to increase the production of white blood cells in the body, which help your body fight infections and keep you healthy. As a child’s immune system develops, they’re exposed to all kinds of viruses and bacteria – so ensuring they’re exposed to sunlight can help ensure their bodies are better able to handle anything that comes their way.
It regulates their circadian rhythms
Sleep is an essential ingredient for growing children. From the newborn years where babies sleep as much as 17 hours of the day, their sleep requirements gradually reduce as they get older, but they still need more than the average adult. That’s where sunlight can come in, as the sun’s rays actually regulate our circadian rhythms that help to establish healthy sleep and wake cycles. This is done through sunlight signaling the body to stop producing melatonin, which is the sleep-inducing hormone. When it gets dark, this trigger stops and melatonin is produced to make us drowsier. In a nutshell, kids who have enough sunlight exposure during the day tend to fall asleep easier at night, and are less prone to ongoing sleep-related problems.
It reduces anxiety
According to the South African Depression & Anxiety Group, 17% of South African children and adolescents suffer from mental disorders like depression and anxiety. On the positive side, several studies have shown a link between vitamin D and positive mental health – plus the fact that sunlight boosts serotonin levels which can also improve mood. While there may be many other factors at play including our modern lifestyles and the increasing pressures placed on children, getting them out into the sunshine is an easy way to help them stay positive and mentally balanced.
It encourages more time outside
This is an obvious but important one: the more time your child spends outside in the sun, the less sedentary they are while engaged in screen-related activities, which has shown to have a detrimental effect on developing brains. With the increase in online learning over the last year and a half, our kids are more exposed to screens than ever, so giving their brains a chance to “switch off” away from screens is essential. Being outside also improves gross motor skills – whether they’re jumping, hopping or climbing. For younger children, the natural world is excellent for sensory integration, and playing in dirt is yet another immune booster.
Luckily, getting your kids outside into the sun doesn’t take much encouragement, even if it’s something as simple as a walk round the block while noticing the trees and birds or playing in a park or green space near you. Like most things in life, moderation is key: avoid the detrimental effects the sun may have by having your children wear a hat, and stay out of the sun over midday. Overall, though, exposing them to sunlight as we head into spring and summer will help your child’s body to function how it is naturally designed – which means happier, healthier children who are more likely to thrive.