Putting kids in the shade

IN school, I was taught that the sun is absolutely necessary for photosynthesis to occur in plants so that they can manufacture their sustenance.

Well, I believe the sun is also absolutely necessary for the physical and mental well-being of our children.

I remember from the time I was seven years old until I was about 11, I would spend most of my waking hours outside the house. I’d wake up and after breakfast, I would rush down the two flights of stairs in the four-storey police barracks where we lived to look for other boys to play gasing with.

Or if it was marble “season”, then my pockets would be bulging with those colourful glass marbles. During kite season, though, flying them would have to wait for the evenings when the wind would be up.

At 11.30am, I would walk to school that was half a kilometre away and walk home at the end of the day. In the evenings, there would still be time to take the gasing, marbles or kites out to play. In all, I would spend 90% of the day outdoors in the sun.

When I had children of my own, I made sure that they spent some time in the sun when they were young. I would take the five of them to the playground and watch them climb all over the play equipment and use the slide or sometimes run around with the balls that I brought along.

Every week, I would take them swimming at an outdoor public pool in the Johor Linear Park gardens where all of us would get into the water together. Sometimes the outing would be at Pantai Lido in Johor Baru. (Sadly, as of this writing, Pantai Lido has been replaced by a huge development that is meant for buyers from China.)

Between the ages of 35 and 38, I was a sepak takraw player for the Taman Sri Skudai team, playing in the sun again.

This was the best time I have ever had playing my favourite game. During this time, my wife took over our children’s outdoor world, playing with them mostly within the corner lot compound of the house that we had bought in Skudai, Johor.

There was one rambutan tree for them to climb and the slide, playhouse and climbing apparatus that I had built for them myself.

But, all in, I would say that my children spent only 15% of the daylight hours outdoors in the sun.

Now I am a grandfather to three lovely grandkids, and I see them mostly spending 0% of the day in the sun. My daughter and her husband do not seem to prioritise it. Perhaps most young people like them have the same attitude.

One of my grandsons attends a private school and he definitely gets no sun exposure there. When I visited the school, the first question I asked was “Where is the playground?”

Since I was the one paying the expensive monthly fee, I wanted to know for sure.

The teachers took me to an open floor area and proudly said that this floor was where the children would play.

I immediately wanted to reject the school but my daughter had set her heart on it because it’s conveniently close to her workplace, so I relented.

With the lure of online gaming and two busy working parents who are also WhatsApping, Instagraming, Facebooking and God knows what else, my grandchildren spend 0% of their time in the sun!

When they visit my wife and me where we now live in Kajang, Selangor, we make sure they are exposed to the sun every day. My wife takes them with her as she waters her many plants while I take over in the evenings and get them outside to fly paper airplanes and play badminton or go on a short kampung trail walk with me.

My point is, what will happen to a whole generation of children who grow up not being exposed to the sun?

Our bodies need the sun to manufacture the vitamin D necessary for its defences as well as chemicals that trigger warm and happy feelings – what will be the state of children’s health with only very limited or no meaningful exposure at all to the sun?

During the Covid-19-triggered lockdowns, no one seems to care about how much daily exposure to the sun children are getting.

Who knows if the many cases of death from illness among the young adult population can be traced back to a weak immune system caused by a lack of exposure to the sun?

Who knows if mental health issues such as anxiety and depression that affect 25% of this country’s population could also be traced back to the same thing?

What kind of health, education and parenting policies should we have in the future to nurture this important issue of children’s health? Furthermore, what kind or urban design policy should we have to enable more parks and play areas that are safe and with a KLCC-like natural environment?

When will Islamic marriage workshops include a childcare syllabus that addresses this issue, or should universities now have a mandatory Future Parenting subject as part of a graduating curriculum?

Our children are the single most important asset we have and yet, we hardly ever wonder how much sun they are being exposed to, much less about other important topics vital for producing healthy children.

Who knows, our children might need the sun just as much as plants so they can “photosynthesise” wholesome growth.

Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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column , parenting , outdoors , children


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