Background  Reducing exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the main effective measure for preventing skin cancer. Educational campaigns targeting sun protection have been focused either on behaviour on the beach during the summer holiday alone, or during everyday outdoor activities of the children. Little is known about the comparison between these different settings.

Objectives  To analyse whether parents apply similar protective measures to reduce UV exposure for their young children in different outdoor environments.

Methods  Families (= 2619) with children aged 3–6 years (response: 64·7%) were enrolled in a population-based survey in the German city of Erlangen and its surrounding rural county. Using a self-administered standardized questionnaire parents gave information about demographic and photosensitivity data of their children, their knowledge about risk factors for skin cancer and their typical instructions given to their children when these played outside on a summer day in different outdoor environments.

Results  Significant discrepancies regarding the four UV protective measures (clothes, shade, sunhat, sunscreen) for children between an everyday outdoor setting and a holiday setting on the beach were observed. A high level of parental risk factor knowledge was significantly associated with a better protection for children in all four measures only on the beach. Photosensitivity and demographic characteristics had some impact on protective behaviour, too. Measures of sun protection were reduced with children’s increasing age.

Conclusions  Skin cancer prevention campaigns should target the encouragement of sun protection for children also in outdoor activities of daily living, not only during a summer holiday on the beach.