Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your little one can’t help but touch everything they see! That’s because infants, toddlers and preschoolers are inherently curious about their world. That’s usually a good thing but let’s admit it—mom to mom—right now, during this time of Coronavirus, chasing after your kid and reminding them to not touch their eyes or nose or to wash their hands for 20 seconds, is exhausting and stressful.
Yet, you and I know that it’s more important than ever to teach our kids the lifelong habits for staying germ-free. In fact, behavioral psychologist BJ Fogg and author of Tiny Habits would call this the perfect time to successfully ride what he calls “the motivational wave.” His research shows that if we take action to build good habits at a time in our lives when we are already motivated to change, we are more likely to succeed.
So, how can parents of infants and toddlers help build the lifelong habit of staying germ free during this time of daycare and school closures? I asked Jena Detore, a special educator, a mom of a two year old and a four year old, and our early childhood curriculum designer at Literary Safari, for some simple tips and strategies. Jena is trained in the Montessori and Reggio methods, has taught at schools and daycare in Vermont, New York City, and New Jersey, and has worked with me to develop social emotional learning curriculum and lessons for Sesame Workshop and Nickelodeon products.
Here are her recommendations:
Establish a Handwashing Routine
If your child typically attends a school, chances are they are prompted to wash hands 1) upon entering the classroom, 2) before meals, 3) after meals, 4) after outdoor play, 5) after bathroom use, 6) after sneezing/coughing or blowing nose, 7) before and after any food prep they may take part in. Create this routine at home too. Research on brain science shows that it takes 3 weeks to build micro-habits so if you maintain this routine for 21 days, it could turn into a lifelong habit.
Pick a Theme Song
As a family, choose a favorite song for everyone to sing as you lather, scrub, and rinse. For example, Baby Shark could become Baby Wash, Mommy Wash, Daddy Wash! Healthy habits can be contagious and if your child sees you modeling good handwashing habits, they will follow your lead.
Design a Sign
Restaurants and public bathrooms all have good hygiene signs. Get creative with your child and work together to create your own sign for your home. They could illustrate it and dictate it to you, or you can take turns drawing and writing. This is a great way for you to learn what they have already been taught about how to keep germs away or how to wash their hands.
Create Personalized Hand Towels
Assign each family member their own hand towel for drying hands. If you have permanent markers or fabric paint, you can decorate or personalize each one. Setting proper expectations for the entire family will keep everyone healthy regardless of the illness going through the family or greater community.
Keep Tissues Handy
It may sound simple, but keeping a box of tissues at kid height near a trash can will increase the chance that tissues are used instead of hands. Plus, it increases independence and self-determination!
Make them Helpers
Toddlers and preschoolers like to be given real jobs and take pride in their work. Even if they aren’t perfect cleaners, allow them to participate in routine cleaning tasks around the house by showing them how to do some basic tasks like wiping down dining tables and chairs or play areas. You can give them their own set of sponges, washcloths, or brooms.
The cool thing about germs is that you can actually see them and once you do, you are definitely more motivated to wash your hands. Try this easy moldy bread experiment inspired by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital with your kids.
Do Laundry Together
Have your child follow the journey of dirty clothes from the hamper to the washing machine. Then, enlist their help in putting soap in the machine and pressing the buttons (kids love buttons) to get the job started.
This is a great opportunity to talk about how germs can be on clothes without being seen, just like they can live on our skin.
Daycares and preschools have center areas where kids can play independently or in groups. You can set up a handwashing play center with a large bowl (or even the bathroom sink), a pitcher with warm water, soap and towel and some toys. Invite your child to use it to give their toys lessons on how to wash their hands or paws or flippers. You’ll be surprised by how much they know!
Praise, Praise, Praise
Teach kids to reward themselves with a simple slogan of praise whenever they remember to do a healthy habit task. It could be an “I am awesome” jig, a pat on their own shoulder, or a word like Bingo! Studies show that simple words of praise go a long way in motivating human beings and giving them the confidence to continue to build good habits.
Be a Role Model
Healthy habits are contagious, and your child is watching you more than ever before, now that you are all home together 24/7! So, make sure that you practice good habits. If you cough or sneeze into your shoulder or elbow, your child will see that and do the same If you blow your nose and then wash your hands after, they will see that too. If you use a tissue, throw it into the trash can right away, they will follow suit.
Sandhya Nankani is the founder of Literary Safari, a children’s media studio and the mom of a 10 year old. In late February, when she caught wind that the Coronavirus pandemic was going to alter our lives, she created a PSA “COVID-19: How to Fight the New Bad Guy in Town,” for The Story Seeds Podcast, her new show about creativity and storytelling for kids ages 8-12. Narrated by author Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, the PSA invites children and tweens to exercise their superpower to stay germ free in their daily lives by doing 8 simple things. Listen here and download a free poster of these tips here.