Did you know a Sydney school playground recorded a temperature of 60 degrees Celsius last year? That’s hot!  A recent study by Dr Sebastian Pfautsch from the University of Western Sydney found that unshaded asphalt and artificial turf recorded some of the most extreme temperatures, making the playground the hottest area in some schools. Another recent study by PhD student Ben Dexter at the University of Southern Queensland found that teachers spend a fair bit of time outdoors during potentially peak-risk times for sun exposure. It’s safe to say that sun safety at school is big news right now, but unless you’re in a part of the country that experiences perennially hot temperatures, most of us tend to forget about the heat until the forecast hits 40 degrees. This week on School Stream, we look at the issues and some practical solutions to make schools heat-smart and safe for teachers and students. 

Start the year on the right foot with School Stream.  Watch a quick video to see how we support you to streamline and simplify your school communication or keep reading for our deep dive on the sun and school.

Children need outdoor play

As we all know, there are many reasons why outdoor play is important for children. Think about classes you’ve taught on rainy days when students have been stuck inside; we all know they can get a little bit tetchy if they can’t run around outdoors.  There is a myriad of health and developmental outcomes that come from playing outdoors and are crucial to a child’s wellbeing. But what if the playground is too hot?

How does a playground get so hot?

Dr Sebastian Pfautsch has recorded some temperatures in playgrounds where you could literally cook an egg, and he has done plenty of research into the issues: 

“In full sun, the artificial surface materials became dangerously hot. Soft fall surface temperatures reached 71-84°C on days when air temperatures were in the low 30s. Astroturf heated up to nearly 100°C…. Contrary to their current widespread use, this study found that artificial materials like soft fall and Astroturf should be used sparingly and only in shaded settings. Shade does make a significant difference to the temperatures recorded, but shaded soft fall and Astroturf were still hotter than shaded natural surfaces.”

Shade, trees and sand create heat-smart playgrounds 

The answer to heat-safe playgrounds is refreshingly low-tech, and can pretty much be summed up as shade, more trees and sand. The good news is that whether you are an older school or a more recently built school, these solutions can be retrofitted. Experts hope in the future, heat-smart spaces will be considered at the planning and design stage. Soft fall, as the name suggests is designed to mitigate impact, is “one of the worst materials when it comes to heat”. Instead, Dr Pfautsch recommends sand. And when it comes to greenery, he recommends starting with ground covers to get rid of bare soil – well known for trapping heat.

“We always advocate for more trees in schools. In NSW we have a program underway that particularly targets schools. Greening Australia (as part of their Cooling the Schools program) will bring back thousands of trees to green schools up and provide shade.”  

Radio National 20 October 2020. 

Nightcliff Primary School – CASE STUDY OF A HEAT SMART SCHOOL

Schools in Darwin know a thing or two about heat. The Nightcliff Primary is the gold-standard when it comes to being heat-smart at school.

“We have a large basketball area with a metal shade structure, as well as another undercover outdoor area for assemblies that is also used for tennis. Both of those areas are very popular. Our play equipment has sand in it and a shade cloth over it.  After we lost a tree in Cyclone Marcus, Darwin City Council provided us with 30 trees, and we have planted those around our oval. As the trees grow, they’re providing lots of shade and students are walking around the path at lunchtime. We put other trees in our forest. It’s a wildlife sanctuary developed with  COOL Mob, an Environment NT initiative who works with students… “

“We regularly check in with the student voice at our school and the senior students wanted a space that was close to them. The area was covered with bitumen, so we transformed that into a grassy area with picnic tables under the trees and a rock garden where they can sit and have outdoor classrooms. It’s given them a whole space that’s just for them that is still well shaded. “

Radio National 20 October 2020. (Edited for length and clarity)  You can listen to the whole interview online.

Teachers and UV

It’s not just the students who spend a lot of time on the playground. Between yard duty, supervising the bus line, PE and excursions, teachers spend their fair share of time outside as well. So it goes without saying that a heat smart playground is good news for teachers too. But can anything else be done to limit UV exposure for teachers? The answer is, yes. 

Changing break times makes all the difference

A recent study published in early December last year by Ben Dexter from University of Southern Queensland found that changing break times in schools could reduce a teacher’s risk of skin cancer by more than half. That’s significant. Queensland has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world and it is thought that two out of three people in Australia will get some form of skin cancer.  

For instance, in Metropolitan Brisbane we found two schools separated only 13km apart had a 15 per cent difference in annual UV radiation exposure. This in turn led to a 44 per cent increased relative risk of squamous cell carcinoma. The main cause for this increase was the schools had their breaks at very different times”.

While the findings of this study are focused on Queensland schools, it is hoped the research field will be extended Australia-wide. 

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