Wipe it. Mop it. Sweep it. Vacuum it. Cleanse it. Clean it. Wash it. Disinfect it. Decontaminate it. Sanitize it. Scrub it. Make it spotless. And, then start again! The cleaning process may seem endless but cleaning is one way to minimize illness, both for children and the adult who care for them.
It is impossible to maintain a germ-free environment all the time, but planning and establishing procedures for attacking germs can help. Begin with prevention by considering how materials and toys can be kept clean even before purchasing them. For materials you already have, inventory toys, blocks, puzzles, and other items, and determine the best way to clean or sanitize each item. Should it be laundered in a washer? Should you use a disinfectant wipe? Should you use warm soapy water? Should you clean it with a bleach solution? (For a bleach solution, remember to use one gallon of water to 1/4 cup of bleach mixed daily and stored in a locked container away from children.) Some guidelines are provided below, but you should evaluate your own specific items to determine if the suggestions will work for them.
Next, establish procedures to guide the ongoing cleaning routines. Some items will need to be cleaned several times a day and others daily. In some cases, a weekly or even monthly schedule may be more appropriate, so consider the time period needed when creating your procedures. Toys and other items that the children use must be cleaned, preferably after each use but in some cases on a daily or weekly basis.
When caring for infants and toddlers, assume that everything will eventually go into mouths! Pacifiers, teething toys, and the corner of a blanket are all items destined for sucking or chewing; and if children share these items, they also share the germs. Some items, such as pacifiers or a child's favorite teddy bear from home, should be kept for individual use; allow use of such objects only when children are in individual play spaces or being held or rocked. Remember, pacifiers should never be attached to children's clothing with clips or necklaces due to potential choking hazards.
All mouthed items, including teething toys, should be cleaned and disinfected after each use. A toy that one child drops on the floor almost always winds up in another child's mouth; so as soon as a mouthed toy is discarded, it must be picked up and placed it in a tub labeled "soiled toys" that is well out of children's reach. This tub may contain soapy water to begin removal of soil, or it can be a dry container. Immediately wash your hands after handling the item to remove the saliva and germs and prevent contamination of other items. Later that day, you can clean and sanitize all dirty items, and have them ready for use the next day. To follow this procedure, you must have enough toys to rotate through the day.
Stuffed Toys and Puppets, Cloth Items
Stuffed toys, puppets, and other cloth toys should be constructed of washable materials. They should be laundered weekly and when visibly soiled. After laundering, check the items closely to be sure the seams are securely stitched and the stuffing is intact.
"Dress up" clothes and items in the pretend center should be laundered weekly and when visibly soiled. Hats and items worn on the head should be washed after each child's use, or use disposable hats that only one child wears. Shoes in the "dress up" area can be sprayed with disinfectant at the end of each week or more often, if needed.
Pillows are not necessary for naptime and from a safety standpoint, they are not recommended. However, if pillows are used, either for older children's sleeping or as "soft spaces" in the play area, they should be machine washable or have waterproof, nonabsorbent surfaces that can be wiped and sprayed with a bleach solution. The same cleaning methods apply to beanbags or other cushions.
Some children may keep items for their personal use such as combs and hair brushes or favorite blankets or toys. These items should be washed weekly and when visibly soiled. Personalized storage areas should be provided for each child to keep her personal items separate from those of other children. You will need to determine if your program will launder combs, hair brushes, stuffed animals, blankets, and other materials brought from home. If it is determined that your program will not take the responsibility for cleaning these items, you will need to create a system for sending them home, working with families to ensure that they are frequently cleaned.
Childcare programs frequently have dirty baby dolls, plastic blocks with caked dirt, and safety mirrors with smudges. It is easy to overlook some items because there are so many. But it is important that all toys and play materials be washed weekly and when visibly soiled. Play items should have smooth, nonporous surfaces or washable fabric surfaces that are easy to clean and sanitize, or should be disposable. Toys that can be washed in a mechanical dishwasher can save labor; otherwise, toys can be washed in a tub of soapy water, rinsed, and sanitized. Toys with moving parts or with small openings or indentations can harbor dirt and germs; be sure to scrub these areas thoroughly. Wooden blocks can be washed with mild detergent created for wood, but bleach water may cause harm to them. Blocks also may be sanded if rough places become evident.
Many items may be difficult or impossible to wash and in some cases, they should be eliminated. However, other items are critical to child development and learning, but may be difficult to clean without causing damage, such as paper books, puzzles, head phones, tape players, and computer key boards and central processing units (CPU). Sometimes items can be wiped lightly and quickly with an alcohol-based wipe. Use your own judgement and look for ways to keep even the most challenging items clean for young children. This may mean replacing items frequently.
Children can contribute to the cleaning process while they are learning. Toys that are washed with soap and water, like baby dolls, can be included in some of the small group or learning center activities planned for children. Yes, you still may need to wash and sanitize the toys later, but children will learn the importance of keeping their toys clean.
Cleaning and sanitizing the childcare environment should be a regular part of the routine in any childcare setting. Children can be involved in that routine in many ways that will help them learn the importance of cleanliness. Simply watching adults respond to cleanliness issues regularly and thoroughly may be the most effective tool for teaching children that cleanliness must be routine for them as well.
Connie Jo Smith, Early Childhood Education Specialist, Training & Technical Assistance Services, Western Kentucky University
Charlotte Hendricks, Editor, Healthy Childcare
Clorox Childcare Center, www.clorox.com/childcare/cln_how_toy.html
Johns Hopkins, www.hopkins-heic.org/prevention/toy.html
Muskoka-Parry Sound Health Unit, www.mpshu.on.ca/EnvironmentalHealth/toy.htm
National Association of State PIRGS, www.toysafety.net