Bring Out the Parasols: Skin Cancer Awareness in the Classroom

Incorporate history, science, and practical sense into teaching kids about the effects of the sun.

By Linda Fitzsimmons Pierce

colorful umbrella

Picture the pioneers, crossing America with blistering sun exposure. We don’t often think of how they coped with the issues of skin cancer. Although some Native American tribes did use the white powder of aspen bark to protect their skin, sunscreen, as we know it, wasn’t mass-produced until the last 50 years. There was a reason for the elaborate hats of the 1800s, parasols, bonnets, cowboy hats, and various other means of shielding faces, arms, and legs from the sun.

Sunburn was, and is, painful. Now we know that skin cancer can result from overexposure to the sun. As teachers, it is our responsibility to inform students about the benefits and risks associated with the sun–and we can also pepper in a little history to keep it interesting.

Sun: A History of Culture, Fashion, and Practicality

When learning about history, it's often the quirky details that learners remember. Teachers can use a culture's relationship with the sun to help the class better understand and relate to what's written in the history books. For instance, sun worshipping has been a part of history since the beginning of mankind. From ancient Egyptians, to Africans and Aztecs, the sun has been revered. Have your class spend time discussing the reasons why these groups of people were so enamored with the sun.  

On the other hand, in various cultures throughout time, fair skin has been desirable, signifying that one was “upper class,” whereas a tan represented field hands and “lower class.” The desire to stay pale fueled many fashion trends, including accessories like hats and gloves. As the wealthy began to travel more and lie out in the sun, a suntan began to be considered “healthy” looking and desirable. Slathering on baby oil became common in the mid-20th century as people tried to soak in the tanning rays of the sun. Ouch! Baby oil combined with the sun, as we now know, is a dangerous disaster for fair-skinned people. Foster opportunities for students to examine their own experiences surrounding the sun, relating their current practices to those of past cultures and time periods. It could even be turned into a research project, where students examine family traditions and beliefs  that have to do with the great orb in the sky.

Now that we are aware of the sun's benefits and risks, preventative education can begin early. Ask parents to send sunscreen to school so that their children can slather themselves with it before they go out to recess or head outdoors on field trips. Encourage wearing baseball hats to guard against facial sun exposure. The stores are beginning to fill up with cute hats for girls and women. Wear one yourself at recess, and you can bet the kids will soon follow. "Parasols," more commonly known as umbrellas, are wonderful to bring along for beach outings. Applying sunscreen, wearing hats, and finding or creating shade should become routine. When they do, we will all be better equipped in the fight against skin cancer.

The Science of Skin Pigment

Learning about the sun also provides a perfect opportunity for a lesson on skin pigmentation. The color of our skin is determined by the melanin in it. Melanin protects the skin from the sun's ultraviolet rays. A tan is visible proof that your skin is being damaged. When the ultraviolet radiation of the sun hits your skin, it makes the brown pigment called melanin act like a barrier for the skin's cells. It can give people the brown tint that is a suntan; however, melanin can only do so much.

Teach your class about skin types to help them make smarter choices when it comes to sun exposure. 

  • Fair skin tone has less melanin and thus is harder to tan and burns very quickly.
  • Olive skin tone has more melanin. People with this skin type tan quickly without as much burning.
  • Darker skin tone has even more melanin (and hence higher resistance to the sun), but if exposed to strong sunlight for extended periods, it can still burn.

Investigating the Price We Pay For a “Healthy Glow”

As a child or teenager, it's easy to discount the long-term effects of the sun. Consider bringing in guest speakers who began basking in the sun years ago and now must see their dermatologists regularly. They can discuss how to look for pre-cancerous or cancerous signs such as growing or irregular shaped moles. They can also outline the various methods doctors have of removing potentially dangerous growths.

Your students should understand that, if they continually have high exposure to the sun, UV radiation will eventually damage their skin, and could even result in death. The American Cancer Society recommend the use of sunscreen because it helps prevent both squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma. This organization has even created a whole curriculum series to support classroom instruction surrounding cancer.

Despite the many known benefits of sunscreen, there is actually much controversy surrounding this protective substance. Controversial topics like this present a perfect opportunity for classroom research and debate projects, where small groups or individuals can practice their powers of written and verbal persuasion. Many sunscreens do not block UVA radiation, which does not cause sunburn, but can increase the rate of melanoma. Unfortunately, people using sunscreens may be exposed to high UVA levels without realizing it. Therefore, the use of broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreens, bronzing makeup, and yes, all kinds of hats, are coming back into style to protect our skin from the damaging rays. Letting students hash out the pros and cons of sunscreen use will help them become more informed, and hopefully more cautious, when it comes to sun exposure. 

As you can see, there is much to learn about the history and current day trends of skin protection. Below are several lessons designed to inform kids about the dangers of the sun. 


Only the Shadow Knows

Using chalk to measure the length of their shadows at varying times of the day, pupils will learn that the longer their shadows, the better the time of day it is to play and avoid straight overhead sun exposure.

Suntan Skeptics

Small groups research various aspects of skin cancer: the societal pressures to look healthy,” the damaging effects of sun exposure, and ways to prevent skin cancer. They then create articles to contribute to a “Protect the Skin You’re In” guide to be distributed throughout the school.

Spread the Word

Using photographs, video, and research, pupils examine the causes of skin cancer and its complications. Creating posters and designing games are the follow-up to this informative lesson.