Teaching About Germs for Kids: Making It Fun, Making It Real, Making It Stick
"But my hands are clean," your 4-year-old insists, after he sneezes right into them. "Look at them -- I don't see any germs on them."
How do you explain the concept of germs for kids to understand? Should you just focus on the actions behind hygiene -- washing your hands, catching your sneeze with your elbow, and not sharing utensils or food -- without dwelling on the explanations?
According to health experts, giving kids explanations (or even educational activities!) behind these basic hygiene practices can go a long way toward helping them become more germ-conscious.
Know the Nuts and Bolts of Germ Education
Even young children can understand the basic concept of germs, according to Dr. Dina Kulik, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Department of Pediatrics. She describes germs as tiny "bugs" that live on all things, and explains to kids that sometimes these bugs can make you sick. When you're sick, you miss out on having fun, going to school and going to friends' homes. You can explain to older kids that these germs are called bacteria, she advises, and they're so small they can only be seen with a microscope. While they're not actually insects, they are living organisms that can grow and multiply quickly.
Dr. Danelle Fisher, vice chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John's Health Center, agrees on the importance of teaching even very young children about germs. In her opinion, it's important to explain to kids, as they get older, that some germs are good -- for example, probiotics -- and that others are bad, such as cold viruses. When they get even older, you can explain the difference between viruses and bacteria to them, so they understand why antibiotics can help with some illnesses, but not others.
For more on colds, check out these Kids' Health articles.
Point out several examples of ways that your child can avoid becoming sick from germs, such as coughing into her sleeve or washing her hands after blowing her nose. And there's one important step of teaching about germs for kids that many parents miss: having your child repeat back to you what you said, so that you know that she understands it. Dr. Fisher believes that this step can help you clear up any misunderstandings before they take root.
Having a hard time figuring out how to explain such an abstract concept to your child? Consider using outside sources. "As pediatricians, we're always happy to help parents explain complex ideas to their children," says Dr. Fisher. If parents aren't sure what to say, they can ask their pediatrician for advice, or even ask their pediatrician to broach the topic with the child.
Play Germ Games and Activities
- Songs and Jokes For fun songs and jokes about hand washing, take a look at this curriculum from Cathy Abraham, MEd.
- Glitter Germs Sprinkle a little glitter on your child's hands in this activity from the Columbus Public Health website. Have him wash with just water. Repeat the experiment, washing with soap and water the second time. Have your child observe which method removes more glitter. Then put glitter on your hand and touch your child's shoulder, hands and hair. Have him see how the glitter (germs) can spread by touch.
- Everything You Touch Also from Columbus Public Health, this activity has children make and color their own germs and then tape them to anything they touch to see how widely germs spread by touch.
- Computer Games: Go online and try some of the computer games from the Scrub Club by NSF International.
- Connect the Dots: Find this and other germ-awareness activities at the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Watch Out for Hygiene Overkill
While it's important to teach our kids about basic hygiene, some kids are prone to going overboard. In general, parents should have a relaxed, matter-of-fact attitude towards germs and cleanliness -- while washing your hands after using the bathroom should be sacrosanct, keeping your hands completely clean at all times is not only unreasonable, it also may be unhealthy. "The reason we're seeing more food allergies in children, according to one theory, is that we're doing too good for a job with hygiene," says Dr. Fisher. So if your son drops a raisin on the floor and wants to eat it, it probably isn't worth the battle. Just think of it as building up his immune system.
Dr. Kulik believes that the way you introduce germs for kids can affect whether they become overzealous about hygiene. "I try not to instill fear, as this can lead to over-washing," she says. "If kids think of them as cute little things, like a cartoon, they can understand we need to stay clear of them, but not be fearful." In addition, if your child seems to be obsessing a bit over hygiene, make sure that you're modeling normal germ control and not going overboard yourself.
For more on hygiene, check out this guide to hygiene for kids.
Keren Perles, founder of Heart and Mind Parenting, has written hundreds of articles geared towards parents and caregivers. With three young boys of her own, she understands how difficult it can be to teach children abstract ideas about hygiene.
* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein