We’ve been fortunate in New York this year. Like much of the country, we’ve enjoyed a mild winter with lots of sunlight and little snow. This week’s forecast even predicts temperatures in the mid-60s tomorrow. With news like that, my daughters and I will certainly be hitting the playground for some pre-spring fun. Like many parents, in my home the winter blahs and associated cabin fever can be a major drag on my ability to get anything done between December and March. Even as a teacher, I’ve noticed that nicer weather is conducive to better classes and happier students. I remember when I was a TA in grad school that one of the highlights of each spring semester was taking my freshmen out onto the quad for class. We all love a beautiful day, and now a new study from Australia has put some real weight onto the importance of that nice weather and our children’s health. As the merits of recess are debated in many districts, considering the benefits of outdoor play and sunlight exposure is more than simply taking a break from school, but rather it may help keep students healthy. More Sun, Less Sickness Part of the reason that exposure to sunlight is so important comes from the impact that sunlight has on our bodies’ production of Vitamin D, which is an important element in immune function. However, the study I mention above endeavored to look a bit deeper into the effects sun exposure can have on the development of particular childhood illnesses. Based out of Australia, the researchers, led by Dr. Nick Osborne from the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, looked at the incidence of food allergies (focusing on peanuts and eggs) and eczema in children who lived in the varying climates of that country. Dr. Osborne’s team decided to focus on their home country in part due to the extraordinarily large number of cases of food allergies and eczema reported each year. Australia is home to one of the largest populations of children with allergies, especially peanut allergies, in the world. This has caused many schools and daycares in that country to become completely peanut-free; it’s harder to find a school that allows peanuts than one that bans them. This, coupled with the many various climates in Australia due to its 4500 kilometer north-south border, provided a perfect sample population for their study. Operating on the hypothesis that more sun exposure would decrease the likelihood of these ailments, the team looked at a two sample age groups, 4-5 year-olds and 8-9 year olds. Their results were far more definitive than they imagined. In the case of 4-5 year-olds, the likelihood of both food allergy and eczema was stronger the farther away from the equator the children resided. However, in the 8-9 year-old group, peanut allergies were fully six times more likely for those living in the south (further away from the equator in Australia). Eczema was twice as likely. Dr. Osborne has great hope for the future of this research. As he explained, his team hopes now to “study these effects at a much finer scale and examine which factors such as temperature, infectious disease or vitamin D are the main drivers of this relationship. As always, care has to be taken we are not exposed to too much sunlight, increasing the risk of skin cancer." Educational Implications Though a study such as this one is far more medical than it is educational, its implications easily extend into the K-12 classroom. As I mentioned in the introduction, the elimination of recess in many districts in favor of more instructional time can have a direct result on the overall sun exposure that children receive. This, in turn, may be linked to illness and food allergy which is far more disruptive to studies than a 30-minute play break. Also, with many schools in the United States in similar situations as those in Australia concerning the prevalence of peanut allergies, questions abound as to what is a “fair” way to protect allergic children and please picky eaters who prefer peanut butter and jelly for lunch each day. Eliminating, or at least reducing allergies to peanuts seems like a win-win situation all around. More importantly, what studies like this one provide is more information about how our actions and lifestyle choices can impact our health. By taking the time to consciously play outside on beautiful days or focusing on the quality of the foods our children and students consume we can create a healthier and more successful future generation from the inside out. Source: Osborne, N. J. Ukoumunne, O.C., Wake, M. & Allen, K.J. (2012). Prevalence of eczema and food allergy is associated with latitude in Australia. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 129:3, 865-867. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaci.2012.01.037
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