Do your kids wash their hands? Official answer is “Yes. Of course they do!”. But do they ever pretend? I remember being as old as 12 and sprinkling a few drops of water on the bar of soap to create the appearance of having washed my hands and therefore avoid the lecture from my Mum. And there in laid the problem.
Simply telling children that germs exist and they will make them sick just isn’t enough to make it real for them. And lets face it, it can be rather challenging to explain that there are alien looking but invisible things that might possibly do them harm at some point in the future. Children need to be able to see and touch things. They also struggle with concepts that aren’t immediate cause and effect relationships.
So, over at Quality Time we dedicated a full week to learning about germs, what they are, where they are, how they grow, how they move around and how we can reduce the chances of germs harming us. Prior to this topic my 3 year old, Elyse and my 4 year old, Kealan had been regularly told that germs are dirt you cannot see but they would regularly leave the bathroom without washing their hands or sit down to eat straight after having played in the mud kitchen. However, things have had a complete turnaround, and as it was such a success I want to share with you what we did.
Germ is a generic term which we use to describe bacteria and viruses. So depending on the age of your children you may want to explain this or say that some germs causes illnesses such as vomiting and are transferred from one person to another by coughing or sneezing whilst other germs enter our body when we come into contact with things that are dirty.
First you need to explain that germs are so tiny that we cant see them with just our eyes. So even if hands or surfaces look clean they might be covered in germs. If you have access to a magnifying glass or a microscope you could demonstrate how magnification works. Explain that scientists are able to use laboratory equipment to see what germs look like and show them some pictures of germs. I struggled to find any good ones but for the activity below I used a picture of a virus I found here. To help Kealan and Elyse understand what a germ might look like I set out play dough and some cut up cotton buds. They did really well rolling it into balls and adding the buds to make some excellent germs.
These colouring pages have great images too and were the inspiration for another art activity. I watered down some paint and the kids dripped it onto the page and blew through straws to make it spread. Once dry i added some details to make our rainbow germs picture.
Now, how to explain that germs are everywhere without turning our kids into those poor people on Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners? Well, I used this experiment, originally from Home School Den. I made the gelatin solution (see link for how to make) and put it in to disposable shot glasses. We then used cotton buds to take samples from several areas in the house. I asked Kealan and Elyse to come up with the places and they did a fantastic job recognising the point of the experiment and where we were likely to find germs:-
I covered the glasses with cling film and left them to fester! Some started to cloud over quite quickly and our bin sample was growing some pretty nasty stuff after a couple of days. Again Kealan and Elyse were keen to see what was happening but I left the cling film on whilst they observed. After 6 days I unwrapped them to take the pictures but I waited until after the kids had gone to bed in case we’d manufactured anything very nasty.
1, 7 and 8 had no growth. 2 was by far the most disgusting whilst 3, 4, 5 and 6 were cloudy and showing small areas of green growth.
I also wanted to demonstrate that a huge amount of germs live on unwashed hands so one afternoon after Elyse had been playing in the garden I asked her to handle a slice of bread. I had Kealan do the same but as he had been inside his hands weren’t as dirty. I washed my hands and touched another slice whilst the 4th piece was left untouched. I placed each piece of bread into its own plastic food bag and taped the bags to the inside of a kitchen cupboard.
Look what happened after 8 days:
As you can see Elyse’s bread was ready to sprout legs and walk whereas Kealans had only few spots starting to grow. The untouched bread had no mould. This really resonated with Kealan and Elyse and i felt like they connected all the learning when they saw what had happened to Elyse’s piece of bread.
For messy fun, we talked about how muddy, stagnant water is a breading ground for germs. I used oobleck (cornflour mixed with water, and coffee to turn it brown) to create a germ swamp. I then added some toy germs (called fungus amongus).
Are anyone else’s children obsessed with the antibacterial spray advert in which the woman wipes down her counters with a piece of chicken? Mine are – they think its hilarious. We carried out our own experiment to demonstrate the transfer and spread of germs. On a tray the kids were each presented with two pieces of bread, jam in a bowl with a knife and a plastic toilet filled with glitter. I asked them to pretend they were using the toilet and to touch it and handle the glitter whilst imagining they were germs. Next I asked the kids to make me a jam sandwich but they were not to wash their hands first. As expected the glitter transferred from their hands onto the bread which demonstrated how unwashed hands transfer germs on to our food. This is a very simple visual representation of what happens but children learn much more from (excuse the pun) hands on learning of this nature. ‘Glitter toilet germ jam sandwiches’ are still a source of giggles in our house.
Hopefully by now your kids will have got the point. WASH YOUR HANDS!! However, washing your hands and washing them well are of course two different things. We carried out this very simple experiment as a visual representation of the importance of soap. I half filled a large mixing bowl with water and sprinkled a layer of pepper on top. I explained to the children that the pepper represents the germs and asked them if the ‘germs’ seemed to mind the water. (Of course the pepper just sits on the water and they have no impact on each other.)
They took turns to dip their fingers in a bowl of washing up liquid (which represents the soap) and then place the finger into the pepper and water bowl. The reaction is instant. All the pepper shifted to the edge of the bowl leaving the water around the finger clear. I told them that the ‘germs’ hate soap and are running away. They loved this and giggled though the 15 repeats of the experiment ( thank goodness its cheap and simple to set up). Pictures dont do it justice but there’s a lovely video on my facebook page, links below.
They now chant “germs hate soap, germs hate soap” every time they wash their hands.
I also explained how germs are effected by the cold and that’s why we store our food in fridges and freezers. As visual reminder we played ‘icy germ rescue’. I froze the fungus amongus germ toys in some ice cube trays and filled some ketchup bottles with hot water. Kealan and Elyse squeezed the hot water onto the ice to melt it and ‘rescue’ the germs. This was a nice learning experience but also great for strengthening hand muscles which helps improve fine motor skills needed for handwriting, cutting etc.
I placed a bowl in our water table with some hand soap and a towel for hand washing learning. This was brilliant. My play area sits at the end of the kitchen and we have a split level house so it was great to be able to see them washing their hands without a trek up the stairs.
I really missed it when our germ week came to an end, so I decided to install a permanent hand washing station. It developed into a self care area with wipes, tissues, hair brush, drinks and snacks. The snacks are held in two drawers. Treats in the red drawer that have to be asked for and healthier items in the green drawer that they can help themselves to whenever they want (as long as they wash their hands first of course).
My name is Natasha McCrory and I hope you enjoyed my Quality Time germ activities.
I live in Banbridge, County Down with my husband Martin and 3 children Amy, 15, Kealan, 4 and Elyse, 3. Currently I am a full time mum and I also share lots of theme based learning on my blog http://www.qualitytimetogether.blog
QUALITY TIME ACTIVITY OF THE DAY has become quite popular on my Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/qualitytimeresources or search Quality Time and look out for the logo.
With my little ones off to preschool and primary one in September I hope to extend the brand further within Northern Ireland. Exact plans are not finalised but I intend to be offering themed play and learning workshops as well as resources to buy and hire so please stay up to date on Facebook for more details.
Thanks for reading, Natasha.Tagged with: advice forum for mums, baby health, how to teach kids to wash their hands, hygiene for kids