Although schools are doing more than ever to increase attendance levels, the rates of absence due to sickness have increased, according to the DfES. One potential reason for this is that today’s children spend far more time indoors than previous generations and so are less immune to common illnesses. Additionally, increased pressure to achieve has led to more children suffering from stress. To reverse these problems, there are calls for schools to encourage more outdoor activities. Here is how outdoor play and outdoor lessons can help.
The Vitamin D effect
As most people already know, spending time outdoors helps increase our Vitamin D levels. This is because our bodies naturally create Vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight. From April to September, even short periods of exposure to our hands, faces, arms and legs is sufficient to produce all we need.
And while most of us are aware that Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, it also plays an important role in the function of our immune system, helping our bodies fight off infections. Without Vitamin D, we make ourselves more prone to catching bugs and for schools, this means more children being off school for longer.
There are always a few children away with bugs and colds but, today, there seems to be a significant increase in the number of infections ‘doing the rounds’. Indeed, the situation has become so concerning, that some schools have begun to put up hand sanitisers in the way hospitals do. In the worst cases, schools are even asking parents to keep entire groups of students at home until the infection has passed.
If sunlight exposure and Vitamin D can help improve immunity to these infections, then extending the amount of time children play outside can only be a good thing. Any school considering cutting lunchtime in half to enable an earlier finish should consider how that choice can impact on attendance and wellbeing.
That said, it’s not necessary to extend lunch or breaktimes, rather it’s about increasing the opportunity to be outside. This means putting equipment in the playground that children will want to play on or creating outdoor learning environments where lessons can take place in the fresh air.
The magic of muck
Aside from Vitamin D, the other thing that helps immunity is exposure to the very things that cause us to get ill. Such is the wonder of the human body, that when we are exposed to viruses and bacteria, our bodies learn to fight them. This means the next time we come across them, we deal with them quicker and more effectively.
Unfortunately, children today live in hyper-clean environments where exposure to these microbes is limited. Sanitary product manufacturers have done too good a job at scaring parents into disinfecting everything. Ironically, our desire to protect children from infections has made them less immune to fighting them off.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, letting children participate in mucky play, such as with mud pies, can be good for them. The immunity they develop to the microbes will mean that they are less likely to succumb to infections later on and this can have a positive impact on the number of days they have off ill. Remember, human beings have existed quite well for thousands of years without the need for sanitising gels, anti-bacterial sprays and wet-wipes – it might be far more beneficial to replace these with a mud kitchen.
The benefits of exercise
When we talk about the benefits of getting children to be active in the playground, it is usually in respect to its impact on their fitness and in reducing obesity. While these are certainly health benefits to be welcomed, we also need to consider that activity can help children to be better at fighting infections.
Exercise, whether it is just walking around or doing more challenging playground activities like playing on climbing equipment, is what causes the lymphatic system to circulate. This is the system that creates the white blood cells that attack infections and then drains the resulting waste away from the bloodstream and organs.
Getting children to be active, therefore, helps them fight infections more effectively and keeps them fit enough to stay at school.
Much of the stress suffered by pupils today is a direct result of the pressure put on schools by Ofsted to improve progress and attainment. With no sign of those expectations being diminished, it is up to schools to manage pupil (and staff) workloads in a way which will have a minimum effect on their wellbeing.
While some amount of stress is natural, being overstressed can have an enormous impact on our health, affecting our immune system and stopping us being able to relax, sleep and even eat well. Over the longer term, it can increase the likelihood of serious illnesses, such as stroke, heart disease and cancer. With regard to mental health, it can be linked to depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders and suicide. Those who suffer from stress are also more likely to turn to unhealthy habits as coping mechanisms, for example, smoking, drugs and alcohol.
Today, we are seeing increasing numbers of children taking time off school because of stress. One way to help manage stress and reduce the impact on attendance is to give children more opportunity to work and play outside.
According to the NHS, lack of sunlight can cause part of the brain called the hypothalamus to stop working properly. When this happens, our body produces less of the hormone, serotonin, which we need to lift our mood and cope better with stress. Being in the sunlight, therefore, can help us deal with stress more effectively. In addition, taking part in outdoor physical activity or having somewhere calm and quiet to escape the daily pressures of the classroom can also help us feel less stressed.
Keeping children in school is essential if they are to make consistent progress. However, this is difficult to do if children lack the immunity to fight off infections or are not given the opportunity to participate in activities that alleviate stress. Hopefully, the ideas mentioned here will be useful in helping to keep your pupils healthier and thus improve their attendance.
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