These days, Covid-19 (Coronavirus) is all over the news, and affecting the lives of nearly everyone on the planet. We’re all taking precautions. As adults, we know what to be aware of, and how to prevent the spread of infection, even if we’re not perfect at it. With kids however – especially in the early years – the fear of a pandemic can be an abstract concept. Children are wonderful in their ability to cheer us up – they are happy over life’s little pleasures, when we seek bleak roads and feel stressed. We love them for that. But, we also want them to be safe – without panic or fear – from these ‘invisible bugs,’ which we call bacteria and viruses.
So, how do we teach preschoolers about viruses, bacteria and sickness prevention? Teaching these kids about the cold and flu should be part of our daily conversation. Early childhood educators should be teaching it in their curriculum. We’ll give some tips for how to do so, below.
Note: this article will assume that the tips below are being applied in a ‘year round’ situation, where classrooms are still in session (since this is not just about Covid-19, but all contagious illnesses). Parents can use these principles to teach children at home, if they are self-isolating or social distancing.
Start with repeat lessons about flu prevention habits during circle time
Circle time is probably the best time to prepare early learners for sickness prevention. This is when a preschool teacher can demonstrate how to cough into elbows, and when little science experiments about germs can be taught, with as much attention as possible from the little ones.
The key is to repeat these lessons about preventing the flu. We often forget to be vigilant about washing our hands. After all, germs are invisible to our eyes. So they don’t seem like a threat. And, we never really know when we need to be cautious, and when it’s ok to be carefree (such as with messy play, which can be beneficial).
Whether once a week, or once a month, or in whatever interval you choose, as a preschool teacher, we would advise that these lessons be repeated.
To teach preschoolers about the cold and flu, during circle time you can:
Talk about the ‘right’ way to cough and sneeze.
Teach children to use their elbow when coughing or sneezing, or to sneeze into their shirts. Call this a ‘bear sneeze’ and tell them to imagine they are giving their face a ‘hug.’
If they honestly forget, and accidentally cough into their hands out of habit, they should wash their hands right away.
Teach them, with demonstrations, that if they are near someone who coughs or sneezes, they should hold their breath, and move away, so they don’t breathe the air around the cough or sneeze. Droplets from a cough or sneeze can travel up to 100 miles per hour in the air!
Teach kids about germ contact points and cross-contamination
In addition to knowing how to not spread germs coughing and sneezing into our elbow, children must learn about cross contamination.
We’ve talked about food cross contamination before, in previous articles on our site:
- Teaching early learners about food cross contamination and cleanliness
- Teaching daycare kids about food safety
But food contamination is not the only type of contamination. When we sneeze and cough, or our ‘boogers’ and saliva get on our hands, they can then end up on our desks, door knobs, and eventually – the worst: our face!
The important thing is avoiding these germs getting in our face. And this is inevitable because of our common habits, which we don’t even notice.
As role models, we ourselves need to be careful not to touch our face. We also shouldn’t ever lick our fingers when eating, or to get them wet to turn a page. This only teaches children to spread disease.
But children are like walking germ-pots. They are not as conscious of germs as we are. So, we also need to teach them to:
- Blow their nose in a tissue, and then throw the tissue away, and wash hands.
- Disinfect their desks, and hey, maybe they can help clean the classroom toys and door knobs too!
- Wash their hands (or use hand sanitizer) after playing outside (or at indoor playgrounds), when using the washroom, before eating or preparing food, after touching animals and doing chores, or when touching public use spaces, such as shopping malls, restaurants, and so on.
- If they see animal poop, or needles on playgrounds (we know, people are gross and inconsiderate), they should never touch them. They should tell a teacher or parent right away, and warn other kids to stay away.
- Never share their straws, cups, bottles, utensils, pillows or other objects that have their saliva or bodily fluids on them.
- Take a bath and wear clean clothes daily. Don’t touch the bottoms of shoes or slippers, and if they do, to wash their hands.
- Keep away from others who are sick, and to stay home when they are sick.
Read children’s books about getting sick and how to cope with sickness
Stories help us learn and remember facts. It’s no different with children. This is why books about their favourite characters getting sick, and washing hands, can be illustrative of what they need to do.
if we can kick in their emotion, sympathy and empathy of others being sick, they may then realize the importance of keeping themselves healthy, so others can be healthy, too. Kids may remember how much they didn’t like it when their tummy hurt, or they couldn’t sleep well because of a plugged up nose. With total calmness, we can encourage them with stories that show we are all ‘in the same boat.’ And hooray! – we can do something about it!
The articles below list children’s books that talk about getting sick, and how to deal with the emotions surrounding that feeling:
Plus, googling this subject will bring up plenty more.
Sing songs about washing hands and staying healthy
The PDF below by the CDC provides plenty of lessons, including songs and worksheets, to teach children about the flu:
In it, you’ll find songs about washing our hands, and staying healthy from the flu. They follow tunes to songs we commonly know and sing all the time, such as “happy birthday.”
You can sing these songs with children during circle time, and include actions, to make them fun. Then, also show children how to sing these songs the whole time they are washing their hands. That way, they can have cues for how long hand washing should be (at least 20 seconds, folks!).
Do science experiments to demonstrate how germs spread, and how washing hands can help
The resource mentioned above, by the CDC, mentions a glitter experiment, where a teacher gets a child to put lotion on their hands, and then sprinkles them with glitter. This way the children can see what germs are like – they ‘stick’ to us, and don’t come off that easy.
Since germs are invisible to us, it’s helpful to give kids some visuals that are visible.
Other demonstrations and science experiments can include:
The pepper and soap trick
Sprinkle grown pepper into a bowl of water. Have another bowl ready with water and soap in it. Ask a child to stick their finger into the bowl with pepper. They’ll see that the pepper doesn’t move, and in fact sticks onto their hand. The pepper is like ‘germs.’ Next, the child can stick their finger into the soapy water, and then put it back into the bowl with pepper flakes in it. The pepper moves away!
Here is a video that shows how it’s done: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KirHm_sYfI
Glow in the dark germ lotion trick
Parents and teachers can buy glow in the dark lotion that mimics germs under a blue light. Nurses and healthcare workers also use this trick to teach the general public about hand washing. You can see Steve Spangler doing this experiment in this video (starting at around 1:00 minute): https://youtu.be/fKyVIclV71Y?t=62
You’ll notice the way that Steve Spangler does it, is he gets the kids to touch other things after using the lotion (or, just live life normally). And, he shows that even after washing hands, the glowing, ‘pretend germs’ are still there!
Mark Rober also has a kid-friendly video to explain how germs spread, with a glow powder. He ran his experiment by not telling a classroom that he was doing the experiment!
Here is that video (the results are shocking!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5-dI74zxPg
He also explains how important it is to not touch your face!
Watch videos that teach kids about how viruses and bacteria spread
In addition to story books, there are plenty of cartoons on YouTube that talk about sickness and bacteria, in child friendly ways. Even if they are not meant for children, some are very simple and easy to understand, or simply demonstrative, even for adults.
For example, the following video shows how quickly coughs and sneezes can spread in the air:
We would say this when picking virus videos for a preschool classroom: some can be scary, or complicated. Preschoolers at this age don’t need to be panicked or scared. They simply need to be aware. Big words, or eerie background sounds are not helpful to this age group. So, please watch them all, and pick the ones you choose to show your kids carefully.
We won’t list them all here (since there are so many). However, here is one that may work for you:
Teach children to report cold and flu-like symptoms as early as possible, and to not be afraid of healthcare workers
This is important: many people do not report their illness or symptoms when they get them. Even we as adults can think: it’s no big deal, I’ll just charge through this and go to work. But that is not safe. And as we’ve seen with past pandemics, some flu-like symptoms can seem like the ordinary colds and flu we get every year, but they are not. They can be more serious.
If a child feels sick, or sees a child in their classroom is sick, they should be notifying you as a caregiver.
The other common fear is about healthcare workers. Some cultures can be distrusting of healthcare workers. And some people, in general, are afraid of hospitals. Kids may remember the time they got a flu shot, and it hurt, and may not want to go to the doctor’s again. We need to debunk these myths, and teach children that doctors and nurses are here to help, so we can get better as soon as possible.
Make your classroom flu ready, and train staff for flu prevention
Finally, as daycares and preschools, we need to make our classrooms flu ready, year round. We need to train our staff for flu prevention, and have good sanitation and reaction procedures in place. This includes:
- Daily disinfecting surfaces, knobs, toys and bathrooms in our classrooms (this can seem like a hassle, but it is important).
- Having emergency supplies in our classrooms, including for cleaning, and catastrophes like earthquakes.
- Having a plan in place to isolate a sick child from the others in the classroom, if they show symptoms of illness, until a parent or caregiver can pick them up.
- Posting signs about hand washing and keeping the area clean, and generally training our classroom kids to follow these practices.
- Implementing germ science into our curriculums, to teach kids at a young age the right habits for keeping illnesses at bay.
- Staying home ourselves, if we feel sick, so we don’t infect others.
In the end, if we all pitch in, we can keep colds and flus under control, even if we can’t totally prevent them.
More resources on this subject:
See more on our blog:
- Basic first aid and emergency response skills to teach in preschool
- 5 examples (types) of informal education in early childhood
- 5 Tips for baking activities with preschool-aged children
- 6 Myths about daycare and preschool, debunked