By Dr Kimberley O’Brien

In the last few weeks, the country has started to open back up with children returning to the classroom. Many parents will be rejoicing at the increased normality back into their routines, and the extra adult help to entertain and educate kids.

But some parents have justified reservations and anxieties around what this new routine will look like, particularly when it comes to hygiene and maintaining a limited spread of Covid-19.

Throughout the pandemic, it’s been instilled in us adults to wash our hands, not to touch our faces and to be more aware around germ fueled environments and situations. And as any parent will happily point out – the classroom is a prime location for passing germs.

This parental opinion isn’t just hearsay, it’s backed by fact. According to Dettol’s Global Hygiene Council* almost half (45%) of Australian primary school children do not always use soap when washing their hands at school1, more than 1 in 3 (36%) haven’t learnt how to wash their hands at school at all and over 1 in 4 (26%) Australian parents and teachers do not know when their children should wash their hands with soap and water.

So while most parents would agree and assume that germ spreading in the classroom is just a fact of life, is there not more we can do to modify this thinking?

How can we bridge this apparent hygiene literacy gap amongst teachers and parents, and better educate our kids on the importance of hand washing?

45% of Australian primary school children do not always use soap when washing their hands at school.

Research in neuroscience has shown that play enhances children’s development and ability to learn new skills. So with this in mind, play is an incredible tool that can build the cognitive skills of good hygiene habits too, both at home and in school, whilst also giving parents and teachers opportunities to set foundational habits needed as the country and schools open back up.

As a child psychologist, I often recommend that parents and teachers use play and humour to engage children in learning for the best results. When it comes to developing good hygiene habits, I would bring the lesson outdoors and increase the fun factor with interactive games, messy play, loads of soap and buckets of water.

According to research, 36% of primary school kids haven’t learnt how to wash their hands at school at all.

Here are my additional tips to help children learn good hygiene habits:

  • Use praise! Children learn from their mistakes, but most accept positive reinforcement on their good habits, better than they do negative sentiment aimed at their poor choices or mistakes.
  • Continue to set positive examples. Just because restrictions are easing doesn’t mean we should forget all of the great habits we as adults put into practice. Our kids watch and learn from us daily, so continue to keep up your own positive hygiene habits, and they’ll rub off on to your kids too
  • Be creative in the way you explore hand washing. Allowing kids to actually get dirty, whether it’s with art supplies or in the garden, and then encouraging hand washing afterwards, re-enforces the positive habits and fun playful moments
  • Use colour. There’s a reason kids toys and activities are brightly coloured or sparkly. As their eyes and brains develop, children are attracted to them more, finding them more interesting and stimulating. Using coloured soaps in the bathroom is a great way to engage kids with hand washing.

Dettol has launched, ‘Catch a Habit’, a play-based program to get more children to adopt good hand hygiene habits and help stop the spread of germs. The program will encompass a variety of engaging activities, such as new handwashing song and a new hygiene school curriculum “Hygiene Quest,” which includes comic books and activity sheets. As a part of Dettol’s partnership with the Sydney Opera House it will also offer interactive experiential learning that will be housed at the Opera House from early next year.

By harnessing the power of play through engaging and imaginative activities such as these, children will develop a lifetime of hygiene habits in a nurturing and interactive environment3, ultimately improving recall and embedding these behaviours more permanently.

Importantly, Dettol has developed the hand washing jingle for multiple languages too, available in English, Mandarin and Arabic.

For more information on Catch a Habit or Detol click here.

* Hygiene Behaviour Change: Embedding behaviour change at the heart of RB’s purpose strategy”, Report by Global Hygiene Council and Ipsos, p.22. 525 Australian parents were surveyed as part of this report. Survey completed May 2020.