How to teach young children about COVID-19 and germs

As schools close and communities shelter in place, young children will inevitably feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their daily lives. Equipping our children with knowledge about the virus and how to protect themselves will calm their nerves and make them feel safe. 

Children feel empowered when they know what to do to keep themselves safe. 

Teach your children about germs with these three techniques, each paired with a simple experiment:

  1. HANDS TO OURSELVES: Use glitter to teach young children how easily germs can spread by touch.  To experiment, put a small pile of glitter in the palm of one child’s hand. Tell them that each piece of glitter is one germ. Then ask everyone to run around the room and touch various objects and surfaces. After a few minutes, call your children back to the circle. Notice how much of the room is “infected” with “germs” and how many of the children (who started with clean hands) now have germs on their hands or clothes. Explain that this is why it is important for us to wash hands and keep things out of our mouths.
  2. COVER OUR COUGHS: Use water mist to teach young children how far germs can travel in the air. With everyone sitting in the circle, hold a squirt bottle in your own hands. Squirt the water to demonstrate how far germs can fly in the air when someone coughs or sneezes, even without physical contact. Explain that this is why it is important to cover our coughs with our elbows and to keep a six-foot distance from each other.  
  3. WASH OUR HANDS CAREFULLY: Use baby powder or flour to teach children where germs can hide. To experiment, place a small amount of powder in the palm of each child’s hand. Ask them to rub their hands together for a few seconds. When they are finished, have them notice each nook and cranny that is filled with white powder. Ask each child to name a place where they see the powder hiding: under their fingernails, between their fingers, in the creases of their palms. Explain that this is why it is important to thoroughly wash hands for the entire Handwashing Song.* When washing, remind your children to clean all of the “hiding spots.”

Don’t be afraid to discuss the coronavirus. Avoiding the topic will only make children feel more worried. As educators and parents, our goal is to set the emotional tone and help our children feel informed with fact-based, developmentally appropriate information. Take cues from your children in terms of what they are curious to understand and how they are feeling.

The most important thing for you to do as an educator and role model is to stay calm. Even if you are concerned, it is important to model calmness. Children look to adults for assurance.

Reassure your children about how their bodies are strong, healthy and ready to fight off germs.  Teach them how to keep themselves safe by keeping hands to themselves, covering coughs and washing hands carefully. Reassure them that, even if they do start to feel sick, their bodies will just need rest to fight germs before they can play with friends again.

Some children can feel afraid of doctors so reassure them that doctors are special helpers. Sing songs or role-play about doctors to help calm their fears.   

Use this COVID-19 Teacher Resource Pack as you wash hands, address children’s fears about illness and visiting doctors then sing your way to healthy habits during this challenging time.