Lessons in Hand Washing


Coughs and Sneezes

Since the arrival of Covid, our understanding of why it is important to have good hand hygiene has deepened. In fact, washing our hands correctly has proven to be one of our greatest defences against the virus.

The saying that coughs and sneezes spread diseases has never seemed truer. Most of us instinctively cover our mouth and nose, at least with a hand, when we cough or sneeze. But how many of us automatically wash our hands afterwards? What do we do if we are out and about? What if we are not near a rest room? Maintaining great hand hygiene is not always as easy as we might hope it to be.


Good intentions

Some may grab a bottle of hand sanitiser; others may intend to wash as soon as possible. Whether we intend to or not, the fact remains that if we have those pathogenic microbes on our hands, simply touching a door knob will be enough for us to share the virus with others. If they then touch their face, (or perhaps suck their thumb) the circle of infection is complete. I do not say this to alarm, but simply to show that we are all vulnerable to both spreading and contracting viruses.

Hand washing cannot guarantee that we will not become infected with the latest virus doing the rounds. The rapid spread of Norovirus (the dreaded sick bug) each year, is proof of that. But if done properly, having great hand hygiene can hugely reduce the chances.


Pondering the process

Did you change your hand-washing habits since Covid first made headlines? If you are washing your hands with greater diligence, are you certain you are performing the task correctly? Do you wash your hands for the recommended minimum time of 20 seconds? Apparently if we cannot sing the entire ‘Happy Birthday’ song while washing our hands, we have performed the task too hastily.

How conscious are you of others’ behaviour?  How often do you see people leave a public toilet without so much as a glance at the wash basin? What about those who perform the 5 second, soap less, fingertip bathe?  Have you seen people who quickly dabble their fingers beneath running water before shaking them dry and leaving? Are you guilty of doing the same?

Did you know that even if when we are abiding by the 20 second rule, the majority of us may still be missing the mark when it comes to hand washing?   When I say missing the mark, I am referring to our thumbs. Research indicates that many of us do not wash our thumbs with the same diligence as the rest of our hands. While this is not great news for thumb suckers, it means that all our thumbs could be a safari park for germs.


Children and hand washing

As a parent I had always believed myself to be extremely thorough when teaching my children about hand-hygiene. If ever I observed a child skipping straight past the sink after using the toilet, I would immediately redirect them to the wash basin. We are a large family; one outbreak of vomiting had been enough to establish my commitment to soap training. However, the revelation that my children might still be leaving the bathroom with the task half done, was enough to inspire the return of ‘after washing hand inspections’. Sure enough, my youngsters frequently managed to clean their hands with barely any soap contacting their thumbs at all. I was mortified.


Lessons 1 - How to wash your hands

It was time to return to hand washing basics and because we home-school, I made the process part of our science curriculum.

One of the biggest parenting hacks I have learned as a home-schooling mother, is that children learn best when they learn by example. It was not enough for me to tell the children to go wash their hands. I had to wash mine with them so they could see how it ought to be done. I broke the process down into four simple stages.

 How to wash your hands

  • Run your hands under clean water. (The water should not be hot for little hands.)
  • Using soap (liquid or bar) lather up for about 20 seconds. Be certain to get those soapy bubbles all over your hands, between your fingers, under the nails and around wrists and the backs of hands!
  • Rinse the soap away
  • Dry your hands with a clean towel or the hand dryer if you are out.


Lesson two - When to wash your hands

For our second lesson we sat down and discussed why and when we should wash our hands. We decided to make a list which I include below. Making a list was helpful as it also helped the children recognise the many occasions where they did not have a good handwashing habit. By the end of the lesson the children were really starting to think about where they might pick up germs.

When should we wash our hands?

  • Before we cook food
  • Before we eat
  • After we use the toilet
  • After we play in the garden
  • After we visit the playground
  • After doing chores
  • After playing with pets or touching other animals
  • After we cough, sneeze or blow our nose
  • After we visit someone who is poorly
  • After we clean up after our pets
  • After washing pet bowls
  • After handling cash because we do not know who held it before us
  • After using shopping trolleys
  • After playing at the beach
  • If we help change a baby’s nappy
  • If we hold hands with someone who has dirty hands


Lesson three - Germs and how they are spread

For our final lesson we talked about how germs spread and how they get into our bodies. There had been a recent outbreak of Norovirus and many friends who attended school had been poorly at the same time, so I was able to use this as a base to launch our discussions.  One of the main topics covered was why do germs spread so easily in places where more people gather, such as schools, hospitals, and offices?  This naturally progressed to discussions about the plight of people in poorer countries where perhaps they live near one another but have no running water or soap available.

How do we get infected with germs and viruses?

  • By touching dirt, dirty hands, or body waste.
  • Through eating or drinking contaminated food or water
  • By touching contaminated surfaces
  • By breathing in droplets in the air from someone else who coughed or sneezed
  • Through cleaning up after someone who is sick or who vomited
  • By touching our face, especially our mouth, nose or eyes after touching something or someone who is contaminated

Lesson extras

For those with children who enjoy colouring, there is a vast selection of free hand washing, colouring pages available on-line. We had some of our children’s colouring laminated so they could hang them in the bathroom and toilet as a reminder to wash their hands.

We also highly recommend Twinkl, who offer a huge selection of learning resources for a very reasonable fee.

Another activity we enjoyed was imagining what germs would look like if they were characters and then bringing those characters to life in paintings and drawings. When it comes to the imagination of little ones, the possibilities here are endless.


Practice makes perfect

My children did not become hand-hygiene specialists over night, but following the lessons we have noticed they are much more careful to wash their hands and will even remind one another. We do get through quite a bit of hand soap nowadays and sometimes I do need to exercise a little patience when I'm in a hurry but they are taking their time at the wash basin. However, we live by the motto that practice makes perfect and knowing the passion children have for exploring the world, a few seconds of delay so they can wash their hands, and the cost of extra soap, is a price worth paying.

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