Helping Teach Healthy Hygiene Habits

boy washing hands at the sink in nursery

One of the goals of St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s early childhood program is to foster independence and self-help skills in young children, and teaching healthy hygiene habits is top of mind for parents. “At this age, personal hygiene moves from something parents and caregivers do for children to something children can do for themselves,” says Regina Hannon, R.N., St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s school nurse. “This is the perfect time to instill good habits that your children will stick with once they are old enough to handle them without your supervision.”

Nurse Hannon and her colleague Shauna Volson, R.N., are familiar faces among early childhood classes—their office is located on the second floor, in the midst of the Beginners, nursery, and junior kindergarten classrooms. The school’s 2, 3, and 4-year-olds rely on their guidance each day, and parents frequently turn to them for their thoughts on everything from potty training to nutrition. Despite the challenges of COVID, St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s program remains in-person, five days a week, and the nurses’ wisdom and experience are part of what has made that possible. Here is some of their advice:

1. START WITH THE BASICS—HAND WASHING

First, explain why it's important using simple terms: “We wash with soap and water to get rid of dirt and germs that could make us sick.” Children are more likely to cooperate if they understand why it’s important.

List the times when they need to visit the sink—before eating and after using the potty, blowing their noses, or playing outside—and offer frequent, gentle reminders.

Take them through the steps of hand washing—turn on the water (stick to cold to be safe); wet hands; pump the soap dispenser once (bright-colored or fruit-scented soap can be appealing); and lather up by rubbing together the front and back of hands and in between fingers. Frequently, little ones are impatient and barely get their hands wet.

Caregivers can make hand washing more fun, and last longer, by teaching children a song to sing while they wash their hands. An optimal length of time for children to spend washing hands is about 20 seconds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A verse of “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is a great option.

2. BE AN EXAMPLE

To encourage your child to follow good hygiene practices, you must lead by example. Do little things like washing hands, cleaning the kitchen or the table, or brushing teeth, together.

3. FUN WITH HYGIENE

Don’t make hygiene a dreadful topic for children. Make it fun. Here are a few games and fun activities you can try to make personal hygiene fun for your children.

  • Germ Transfer Game

Germ Transfer is a fun game that teaches how germs get transferred from one person to another. Apply washable paint to your hands while the children cover their eyes, then pretend to sneeze. While their eyes are still closed, touch everything you can with your hands to spread the paint. Ask the children to find all of the places the paint went and to touch the paint. After the exercise, ask the children to count the number of locations the “germs” have been transferred to. Also, have them look at their hands covered in paint to show that they “got” germs from you because you didn’t wash hands after sneezing.

  • Glitter Hands

Glitter Hands is a fun game that shows children how long it takes to get rid of germs and helps them understand why they need to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds. Children like it because it lets them get a little dirty! (Parents might prefer to try this one outside!)

Take some glitter and sprinkle it on your child’s hands. Ask them to wash their hands to get all of the glitter off, using soap and tap water.

Glitter is naturally sticky and won’t go away with a quick rinse under the tap. It will take your child some time to get rid of all the glitter from the hands. Tell them that like glitter, germs can only be removed by washing hands for at least 20 seconds, not just a rinse.

  • Hygiene Matching Game

Teach your child about personal hygiene with a homemade matching game. Create 10 cards with pictures of hygiene products on them (toothbrushes, lotion, soap, nail clippers, hair brush, etc.) Then create 10 cards with corresponding body parts, such as a smiling mouth to match with toothbrush. You can print pictures you take with your camera or find images online. Place all cards face down, allowing players to flip two cards at a time looking for a match. If they do not find a match, they flip the cards over until they find the match to the card. This game teaches them what tools to use to take care of their own hygiene and tests their memory.

  • Hygiene Chart

Similar to a chore chart, a hygiene chart can be a fun way to give children recognition and rewards for a job well done. We know children love rewards! Some charts available have customizable options to incorporate hygiene tasks or you can find some simple hygiene charts online. Your child can enjoy the responsibility of putting a sticker on the chart and getting a small reward or prize once they have accumulated enough stickers for the week.