With the continued impacts of a pandemic and the challenges and confusion that has caused, I thought I would start with “Talking to children about germs and how to stay healthy”. Now more than ever, children are aware of germs in the environment and how those spread. Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, I was constantly playing in the dirt and outside because I loved it and my family encouraged it. Now, when I see a surge in the promotion of fresh air and connectedness to nature from many healthcare professionals, stating it builds the immune system, I want to say, well duh! However, I cannot assume that others have grown up the way I did or have access to nature the way I did and do now. I can continue to help families build nature activities into their schedules and hopefully provide ways to explain germs and the environment to children.
Preschool: Developmentally, this age group is soaking up everything in their environment at accelerated rates. Anyone who has interacted with this age whether through their own family, at church, or anywhere will describe them as “little sponges” or “monkey see, monkey do”. With good intention, adults often think shielding them from complex information is best. However, their imaginations are fully engaged and active. Therefore, they will fill the gaps with their own, made-up scenarios or information if not given accurate information. To support this age, they need concrete, factual information in simple terms they can digest. In reference to germs, they need simple, concrete details. An example would be “there are healthy germs that support our bodies and germs that can make us sick and harm our bodies”. We can protect ourselves by covering sneezes and coughs in our sleeve, washing hands with soap and water, eating nutritious foods, drinking lots of water, and getting lots of time outside in nature with lots of sunshine.” This lets them know the why behind our actions and empowers them to feel in control of their own health.
A favorite activity for this age is to use glitter to emphasize the spread of germs and the importance of hand hygiene. Simply sprinkle some glitter (aka: the germs) on your child’s hands and tell them to rub them together. Afterwards, have them wash their hands and as they do, dialogue about how much effort it takes to get the glitter off. Explain how important it is to wash hands after using the bathroom, picking their nose, before eating, etc. Having a healthy microbiome in children and adults helps our bodies’ abilities to absorb nutrients, regulates the immune system, and can influence mood. A microbiome is the microorganisms that make up a particular environment such as our gut. Gut health is super important and so we want to be cautious not to kill all helpful organisms with the sole use of sanitizer. Instead, using soap and water can cleanse the skin of germs without compromising the body’s natural immune system or causing antimicrobial resistance.
Source: Handwashing vs Sanitizer What’s the best way to clean my hands during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic? | MD Anderson Cancer Center
Source: Sanitizers cause antimicrobial resistance Heavy use of hand sanitizer boosts antimicrobial resistance (phys.org)
Using a fun song or familiar tune can also make hand hygiene a fun activity. Many like to sing the happy birthday song twice or other fun songs. Daniel Tiger also has a great episode with a fun tune you can access here.
Another all-time favorite resource for preschoolers is Sesame Street. They have an army of behind the scene professionals whose backgrounds are in child development, so they have a beautiful way of explaining complex topics to this age. View their video explaining germs here.
School Age: By the time children are in this stage of life, they have a need to feel purposeful and industrious. They have a need to feel capable of doing. To encourage this, they love to be assigned jobs. When working with children of this age in the hospital preparing for medical procedures, I would often tell them “Your job is to ____ (hold still, take deep breaths, etc.) so we can take care of your body”. By giving them this direct and specific instruction, they feel they have control and a purpose in the situation. This helps them follow instructions to help themselves even when experiencing stressful things. To help them understand their role in protecting themselves from germs, you can give them the same direct specific instruction “your job is to be mindful of your body by noticing if you are not feeling well and telling me, that way we can support your body in the ways it needs”. “We can also try to prevent spreading germs to others” or “it is your job to wash your hands after ____” or to cover your cough. Explaining things clearly in the preschool stage coupled with fulfilling the need for purpose in the school age stage, you are setting your children up for success developmentally.
A sticker chart works great for this age! It makes them feel accomplished and they can see their progress as they work toward a goal. The key here is to keep the motivations intrinsic so that they value the goal they have set. Not one that we create for them. I like to work with children to attach a special reward that they have created alongside me to a set number of stickers. For example, after they fill up 1 row or 5 or 10 stickers, they can pick from an established list of rewards. Rewards don’t always have to be tangible, they can be experiential, which I find is most helpful. Examples of these are movie night, special daddy/mommy day, extra outside time, or a visit to the zoo or park/playground. Including children in the planning fosters more autonomy and control by giving them a choice of the chart colors, stickers, and rewards that motivate them internally. This can be fun and can offer moments for you both to get creative and tailor specifically to your child’s interests.
Teenagers: Anyone who has gone through the teenage years with a child, grandchild, niece or nephew can tell you they come with their own set of unique challenges. Teens are attempting to find their identity in terms of who they are, what they stand for, and how they want to be perceived. With sickness being such a commonplace topic now after a pandemic, they might have formed their own opinion or beliefs based on the influences in their environment or the ever-present impacts of social media and the news. While we want to foster this sense of independence, it can be hard if their emerging ideas don’t align with you or your family’s. Ultimately, you are the one who sets the values within your home and family. Working together alongside your teenager, you can guide them to reliable, accurate resources that can help when they are conflicted or struggling with who or what to believe. Simply letting them know you are open to conversation and exploring their opinions and ideas can go a long way, especially if they are different from yours. This will help them feel valued and will build a foundation of trust that can set them up to feel they can have additional or harder conversations down the road with you, when necessary.
When educating children about how to keep healthy, here are some things I love to share for an overall picture. I explain that the body is a system with many parts and that when the parts work together, they are healthier. I like to share about the emotional, social, mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of health. Emotionally, being aware of how they feel and being able to express their feelings appropriately is key to stress reduction. Reduced stress helps our immune system stay strong. Socially, being connected with a strong support system, positive relationships, and family are key. This helps regulate our emotions and provides our bodies with healthy hormones. Mentally, being able to share feelings and thoughts with others, ask questions, and process information accurately is helpful in understanding overall health. Physically, reducing sugars and increasing exercise and fresh air are recipes for healthier bodies. Spiritually, encouraging children to lean on God and talk to and pray for protection, wisdom, and covering is important. Having mentors to ask tough spiritual questions is beneficial also.
Ways to promote overall health include, but are not limited to:
Modeling for children the above choices that promote health, helps them see your example and the benefits. We can encourage them that it is good to get a little dirty by connecting back to nature, to be still and listen to the sounds around them, and to be present in each moment. Now that you have the developmentally appropriate resources to equip your child to understand health, germs, and hygiene, they can feel empowered to continue to explore their environment while remaining safe, healthy, and happy!