If you have not said it yourself, you have probably heard others say it many times: Children, sing the Alphabet Song (or any of a number of others) while you wash your hands and then you will know you have scrubbed away the germs! While both singing and counting are simple and effective devices to help children master the handwashing process, there are plenty of other educational resources available to help you at little to no cost.
Handwashing is important! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that every year, more than 164 million school days are lost due to illness; and many of those illnesses could have been avoided if children had washed their hands correctly.
Young children, especially those in childcare, are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases for several reasons: exposure to germs in group care, immature immune systems, behaviors that spread germs (thumb sucking, putting objects in their mouths), and lack of control of bodily fluids.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), proper staff and child handwashing after diaper changes alone could cut outbreaks of diarrhea by 50 percent. Like other healthy habits, early education is the key to establishing good handwashing habits.
Teaching Good Habits
How do you teach small children, who learn through their senses, about hand hygiene? After all, germs are microscopic and cannot be seen, tasted, smelled, felt, or touched. Fortunately, many resources are available, including some free web-based resources, to help make germs-and the need for handwashing--tangible and real.
Henry the Hand: Champion Handwasher is a website based on four principles of hand awareness: wash your hands when they are dirty, wash your hands before eating, do not cough or sneeze into your hands, and, above all, do not put your fingers in your eyes, nose, or mouth. Of course, children should not just sneeze or cough into the air. Germs can be spread that way, too. Try to keep tissues in convenient places and teach children to use tissues.
To teach these principles, the website offers many downloadable resources, including a coloring book, posters, a classroom handwashing chart, Champion Handwasher medallions, a Doin the Handwash song, and a curriculum guide.
The NSF International offers another resource: the Scrub Club website, which features seven children and their leader. Each of the children represents one of the steps in correct handwashing technique. The website also offers a variety of materials: a downloadable teachers guide, games, a poster, a handwashing song and lyrics, coloring pages, and many other resources.
The four-page Iowa State University Extension publication Teaching Children About Food Safety: A Guide for Child Care Providers gives ideas for teaching handwashing and germ awareness, as well as other aspects of food safety. One suggestion is to talk with children about all the busy things hands do--like petting animals and finger painting--that leave hands dirty.
Why, How, When to Wash Hands: A Preschool Handwashing Curriculum is available online from the Minnesota Department of Health as part of a larger handwashing tool kit. The 21-page curriculum is divided into three units that require 10-15 minutes each to present. Each unit lists objectives, supplies and learning activities. The curriculum includes teaching materials; and the Handwashing Tool Kit outlines a handwashing lesson for children ages 3-6, with questions to encourage discussion of handwashing.
Cathy Abrahams Curriculum Ideas for Exploring Handwashing includes numerous ideas to encourage handwashing, including bulletin board tips, songs, fingerplays, a parent letter and others.
The Healthy Hands/Healthy Kids website offers handwashing lesson plans for children in preschool to grade two, based on three themes--World of Germs, Skin Formation, and Living Healthy, with activities such as music, puppets, and stories to support childrens learning.
The Partnership for Food Safety Educations website Fight Bac(teria) focuses on many aspects of food safety, including handwashing. From the main page, click on Educators. Then on the left toolbar, click on Curriculum and Kids Games and Education to access the resources. These include a curriculum (which is targeted to children in kindergarten through third grade but can easily be adapted for preschoolers), storytelling techniques to enhance the Bac story, and a downloadable coloring book.
Virginia Cooperative Extension has a publication entitled Germ Squirm Kids and Safe Food Handling, with activities based on preschool-age developmental skills such as naming, identifying, sorting and classifying. There are ideas for talking with children about where germs live and hide and what items are needed to wash hands at home, in a restaurant, and on a trip.
There are several childrens books about germs and handwashing, including Melvin Bergers Germs Make Me Sick, Tish Rabes Oh, the Things You Can Do That Are Good for You, Elizabeth Verdicks Germs Are Not for Sharing, and Judith Anne Rices Those Mean Nasty Dirty Downright Disgusting. . . but Invisible Germs. These books can enhance your handwashing curriculum and encourage discussion of handwashing and good health. A childrens librarian can help locate these and other books.
Healthy Childcare® has available a downloadable Hip On Health parent letter and mini poster, in both English and Spanish, as well as articles for childcare programs on the importance of handwashing.
There are many resources available to help you teach children hand hygiene; but you, the childcare provider, are the most important part of the curriculum. Children need to see correct handwashing techniques modeled for them every day. A child who sees her childcare provider wash hands consistently and properly is more likely to adopt those practices.
Parents and families are your allies in promoting handwashing. Let families know you are emphasizing hand hygiene and ask for their support in reinforcing this important health habit at home. A short an informative handout on The ABCs of Handwashing may be helpful to parents.
To be effective, handwashing education must be a continuous process with young children. Encouragement, modeling, reminders, and education are the keys to building good handwashing habits, and there are many resources to support your efforts. The rewards of a comprehensive handwashing education program are fewer illnesses and better health for children, parents, and staff.
Parent Educator, Asheville, NC, City Schools Preschool
Henry the Hand, www.henrythehand.com
The Scrub Club, www.scrubclub.org
Teaching Children About Food Safety: A Guide for Child Care Providers, www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/PM1464.pdf
Why, How, and When to Wash Hands, www.health.state.mn.us/divs/fh/mch/CAREweb/handwashing.pdf
Curriculum Ideas for Exploring Handwashing, www.units4teachers.com/PDF/handwashing.pdf
Healthy Hands/Healthy Kids, www.healthyhands.com/educator/grades_pre_2.htm
The Partnership for Food Safety Education, www.fightbac.org/main.cfm
Germ Squirm Kids and Safe Food Handling,
ABCs of Handwashing, www.fns.usda.gov/tn/Resources/Nibbles/abc.pdf
Child Health Online, www.childhealthonline.org