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  • Writer's pictureTara O'Brien

Teaching Hand Washing to Young Children

With the discovery and rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus, parents and teachers have jumped into action, finding ways to encourage children to practice doctor-recommended hand washing. Parents and teachers can and do, regularly monitor hand washing with their children. But, how can we encourage children to wash their hands, without adult prompting (and sometimes bribing) without causing unnecessary stress? The pandemic has frightened and personally effected many children and its important that we find ways to explain the importance of hand washing without scaring them about the pandemic. Its a tricky line to walk and as a teacher-mom I understand it well.

As a teacher and a parent, trying these steps with your child can help to explain the importance of hand washing without scaring them. Knowledge is empowering and by understanding how and why we wash our hands, young children will feel more in control and less scared about the pandemic. It feels good to be able to do "something" in a crisis, even something as minor as washing your hands.

Several years ago I worked with my class on a project to understand how and why we wash our hands. Step one, I explained that viruses and bacteria, colloquially known as germs, can cause illness. Step two, I explained that "germs" are too small to see with your eyes and scientists need very strong microscopes to see them. As a follow-up I checked out books from the library about this topic and read them to the class. Steps one and two are all about building up a bit of background knowledge about the basics.

Step three involved a hands-on demonstration to explain how transmission works. I took a crayon and covered it in glue and glitter. I explained to the children that we were going to pretend that the glitter was "germs." We passed the crayon around the circle and then checked our hands. Unsurprisingly, all of the children got glitter on their hands. The children realized that we pickup germs by touching infected surfaces.

To further understand how transmission via coughing works I went to the supermarket and picked up a loaf of sandwich bread. I asked each of the students to cough into the sandwich bread and sealed it up in a zip-lock bag. After a week most of the sandwich bread slices were covered in multicolored growth.

After the class understood what "germs" are and how they are transmitted via surfaces and coughing, we shifted towards how to protect ourselves from illness by washing our hands and "covering" our coughs.

I went outside and got a bucket full of soil. Then I explained to the children that we were going to pretend that the soil is full of "germs." I asked the children to play with the soil and check their hands. Needless to say, after a few minutes, all of the children's hands were caked in dirt. First I asked the children to wipe off their hands with a dry paper towel and check if they were clean. They weren't clean. Then I asked children to clean their hands with water and check. They still weren't clean. Lastly I asked each of the children to wash their hands with soap and water while counting to the number 25. I modeled how to wash hands effectively, using a series of pictures. The children tried...and finally their hands were clean.

The children learned about "germs," transmission, and hand washing through a series of hands-on experiments and rather than become scared about illness, they felt empowered because they had the knowledge and skills to tackle the problem independently.

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