With school winding down and summer fast approaching, the minds of classroom-weary kids start to fill with dreams of Kool-Aid mustaches and tree-climbing adventures. And rightly so. But before you let your little ones scamper off into summer bliss, there are a few warm-weather perils parents should keep on their radar.
Here’s how the experts weigh in on three areas of summer safety.
At the beach
The clear blue waters of Lake Michigan sidling up to miles of blond beaches on Chicago’s eastern flank present a temptation almost too great to resist on steamy summer afternoons. Marta Juaniza, a spokesperson for the Chicago Park District, recommends following a few basic guidelines to keep those sand-between-your-toes outings on the safe side.
First of all, following the posted rules at all Chicago beaches is a must. No smoking, alcohol or glass is allowed and beach-goers should dispose of their trash, especially diapers. Firing up a charcoal grill for burgers and dogs is encouraged as long as it’s done in designated areas and the barbecue master keeps a close watch on the flames.
When your sandy-bottomed beach dwellers venture into the waves, go with them or sit close by. Even if your kids know how to swim, a large swell or an unexpected hole in the sand can catch them off guard. Even when lifeguards are on duty, an adult should keep a close watch at all times when the kids are splashing in the water. To encourage younger kids to stay close to shore where water is a manageable depth, suggest a game of water volleyball or Frisbee. Splashing as you run for the disc will ensure regular cool-offs and everyone will stay easily visible.
On the water
Staying near shore is just one way to experience Chicago’s watery playground. For families with a need for speed, boats and jet skis offer a kicked-up thrill and, with the proper equipment, either one is safe for family fun.
According to Virgil Chambers, executive director of the National Safe Boating Council, the number one way to be safe on the water is to wear a life jacket. Find Coast Guard-approved life jackets—they come in all kinds of styles and colors for kids and adults—and keep them on the entire time you’re on the water. Illinois state law requires them for kids under 13, but having parents set an example is key, so make sure all passengers wear a life jacket for the duration of the trip. Kids should also know how to swim and be confident in the water. A life jacket will keep them afloat but can’t stop them from panicking and swallowing water.
Common sense goes a long way on the water, but taking a boating safety course as a family reduces the danger even more. Courses are taught in every state—check with the Department of Natural Resources for local sessions—and learn some vital basics.
Here’s a head start: Unless the boat is moving slow enough not to cause a wake, none of the passengers should be standing up or moving around. Riding on the side of the boat while it’s moving or dangling feet over the edge is both unsafe and illegal. And if the boat is smaller than about 21 feet, having a baby along for the ride is not a good idea.
In the sun
Rays of summer sun, the surest sign of a gorgeous blue-sky day, are both best friend and worst enemy to outdoorsy, on-the-move kids. Too much exposure to the sun is dangerous, but with proactive steps, kids can safely enjoy soaking up rays.
Dr. Anthony Mancini, head of pediatric dermatology at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, recommends sticking to a catchy three point slogan: Slip, Slap, Slop. Slipping into protective clothing directly cuts down on exposure to the sun, so dress kids in lightweight long-sleeved shirts made of breathable fabric to keep them cool. Slap on a hat—one with a wide brim is best—to cover ears, cheeks and noses. Slopping on sunscreen should also become a no-brainer every time kids go outside.
According to Mancini, a sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30 is ideal and safe, even for babies. Just be careful around the eyes and mouth for the littlest ones and don’t forget to rub some onto their ears. Sunscreen should be applied every two hours—more often if kids are in the water—even if the product claims to be sweat- and waterproof. Put it on 15 to 30 minutes before going outside to give it time to activate.
Entice kids to put sunscreen on with easy-to-use sprays, products that come in fun colors or sunscreen sticks that allow easy control for tricky areas like the face. Just make sure they don’t miss any hard-to-reach spots.
Even if your kids are as protected from the sun as possible, encourage them to take breaks in shady areas, especially if they are out during peak sunlight hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Sunburn should be avoided at all costs, so adjust your habits based on experience with your own child.
Safe sun tips for parents
• See a dermatologist once a year for a skin check no matter what your age. If detected early, melanoma can be treatable (survival rates for patients with early detection are about 99 percent but decrease depending on how far the melanoma has spread).
• Apply. Apply. Apply. Because the sun may cause damage immediately, don’t forget to apply sunscreen to yourself and your kids before heading outside, even if you will be under trees. Remember to reapply every 80 minutes even if the sunscreen is waterproof and sweatproof.
• High SPF. Coppertone just released its new Continuous Spray Ultra Guard and Sport Spray SPF 70+ spray– a clear, no-rub spray that quickly covers the body at any angle. This spray allows for quick reapplication in under 1 minute without rubbing in and getting hands greasy. Perfect to spritz on kids who don’t like to stand still.
• Follow the shadow rule. If your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun’s rays are at their strongest. Cover up with sun protective clothing, such as a hat and sunglasses, and head for shade during mid-day heat whenever possible.
Dr. Patty Agin
Coppertone Solar Research Center
Katie Holland, a senior at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is a former Chicago Parent intern.