Germs and hand washing

After bouts of colds, flu and a stomach bug in our house and my increasing frustration at my 3 year old's mediocre attempts at washing his hands (and sometimes outright refusal to try), I decided we should try an activity to show him how diseases are spread and what he can do to prevent them. It's timely given part of the NHS advice to halt the spread of the new coronavirus (2019-nCov) is to wash hands thoroughly.

I decided to mimic a virus (which I just called 'germs' as he's not really old enough to understand the distinction between bacteria, viruses and other pathogens) using blue washable paint. I used this as it's really visible, sticks to hands and other surfaces but can be removed with water and soap or laundry detergent. The idea was to make 'germs' visible so that he could see how they spread around and how to wash them away. I ignored airborne pathogens for this activity.

I spread some blue paint on plastic packaging that I'd removed from something we bought recently. I told the small boy to imagine that I'd sneezed on my hands and picked up the packaging, and the blue showed where the germs were from my sneeze. He looked at me in disgust (which is ironic as he literally rubbed his snotty nose on my trousers earlier in the week after he'd sneezed - yuk!) and refused to touch it. I explained that in real life he wouldn't be able to see the germs so he wouldn't know they were there and he'd just pick the packaging up. He reluctantly agreed to put his hands in the blue paint and get some 'germs' on them so we could see what happened to them.

Blue 'germs' being spread around

As soon as he looked at his hands, he shouted that they were horrible and he wanted to wipe them. I gave him a dry white flannel and he attempted to rub the paint off. Some came off, but the rest just spread around his hands such that his palms, fingers and the backs of his hands were blue. 

Then I asked him to take apart some toys I had put on the table. I had stacked some white Lego Duplo pieces and couple of white linking shapes, and he had to pick them up and pull them apart. He could see the that everything he touched was getting little bits of blue paint on it. Note that I'd chosen the toys for this to be easily washable with water and detergent and also white so that it was really easy to see the transfer of paint. We talked about how with real germs he would be spreading them on the toys, but he wouldn't be able to see them. I asked him what would happen if his brother (who still puts pretty much everything in his mouth) played with the toys, and he told me that he'd get germs on his hands and in his mouth. And what would happen to him then? The germs would make him ill.

Blue paint on the toys

The next thing we did was to wash the paint off. I took him to the sink without touching anything else, and asked him to wash the paint off. He did his usual ineffectual rinse with a bit of soap and little rubbing. I got him to look at his hands, and he could see that there was still a lot of blue left. I helped him to wash them step-by-step to get rid of all the blue, making sure he rubbed the soap and water on all parts of his hands. When he had finished, he dried his hands and we checked to see that there was no paint on the towel. I asked what would have happened if he'd dried his hands before they were properly clean and he said there would be paint on the towel. I pointed out that if the paint was actually germs then other people would be rubbing their clean hands in the invisible germs he had left on the towel. He seemed to think quite hard about it. We also spotted some blue paint in the sink, a bit on his face and a tiny smear on his jumper and he wasn't impressed at how far it had spread.

Hand washing

I'm hoping he learnt a little about how diseases spread and will be a bit less reluctant to wash his hands properly now - he was much better at taking the time to wash them well without being told to do it for the rest of the day...