Getting to grips with germs

29th March 2013 at 00:00
Glitter is being used to represent germs, and their staying power, at one nursery. Jackie Cosh reports

The group of three- to five-year-olds are quite informed about germs. They know that they are everywhere and that the best way to get rid of them is to wash our hands. One little boy insists that he washes his hands after scratching his "bum", while the others are a little less revealing in their answers.

It's circle time at the Hyde 'n' Seek nursery in Glasgow. As part of their health and well-being work, the staff are using The Planet Health programme which has been designed to teach pupils, aged 3-7, about personal hygiene in a fun and memorable manner.

Today they have brought out the glitter, a common sight in most nurseries, but on this occasion the glitter is being used to represent germs.

The nursery had been using the lightbox which Environmental Health lends out, where the children put their hands in and the special lighting shows up the germs on them. Then they wash their hands, put them back in and see how, despite washing them, there are still some germs left.

"Children love putting glitter on their hands," manager Linda Gordon says. "They love making handprints with it and mark-making. Then they wash their hands thoroughly and look at their hands with a microscope. Even after we wash our hands there is still glitter. We use glitter a lot to talk about germs. It helps show how germs can be transported."

One by one the children put their hands in the glitter box, cover their hands with glitter and then sit rigid with hands in the air. "Already we can see germs falling off people's hands," says deputy manager Jennifer Henry.

Together they discuss when they should wash their hands, and how germs move about. "What if you have to itch your face? What happens? Glitter moves from your hands to your face, doesn't it?" Ms Henry says.

"Go and get the glue stick," nursery nurse Ashley Wilson says to one of the children. When she returns with the glue stick, it is noted that there is now glitter on the glue stick.

The children are encouraged to think about how to avoid germs, and how many times a day they should wash their hands. They call out answers before it is decided that they should all go and wash the germs off.

Washing their hands shows the children that even afterwards there are still some germs left. Glitter, like germs, can be hard to remove. It helps them to understand that germs are tiny and not the big monsters young children think they are.

"We get the children to draw germs," Mrs Gordon says. "They don't know what they look like and think of them as monsters. One child drew a germ as tiny spots. She had really got it. It shows you what stage of development the child is at, whether they understand if germs are big or small."

Four-year-old Louis McGlinchey knows you can't see germs. "They are teensy weensy," he says. "If you put germs in your mouth you get sick."

"I wash my hand a lot," says Marcus Bednareck, 4. "I think they are big, but they aren't scary."

"It's not just about washing hands after going to the toilet," Mrs Gordon says, "but about hygiene when preparing snacks. It all ties in to health and well-being. The children need to know about food and hygiene. I would like to move towards having a food hygiene course for the children. If we teach them now where to put food in the fridge and to cover food, it gives them a better understanding of why we shouldn't leave food on radiators."

Planet Health has different lesson plans, all promoting healthier environments in the home, community and beyond, in a fun way, while making the message stick. As well as health and well-being it can be linked in to art, literacy and history.

"We haven't gone down the history route yet," Mrs Gordon says. "I think it is a good idea. They can learn about Louis Pasteur. We will cover that when we discuss milk being pasteurised. I think it is a good option to discuss history in relation to food."


In 2011, the Russell Research for the American Cleaning Institute found that 89 per cent of children aged 8-17 always forgot to wash their hands after going to the bathroom at school. The most commonly cited reasons for not washing their hands was that they didn't have the time (43 per cent). Other reasons included "not being reminded to" (16 per cent) and that "no one else does it" (14 per cent).

Sixty-five per cent of students said that they always washed their hands before eating lunch, 74 per cent said they always washed their hands after touching rubbish, 53 per cent always after blowing their nose, coughing or sneezing, and 60 per cent always after gym class.

Fifty-one per cent reported that teachers did not set time aside to wash hands before eating.


The Planet Health programme, run by the National Schools Partnership, focuses on good hygiene that children should be adhering to and is divided into three sections: Healthy Me, Healthy Community and Healthy World.

Healthy Me looks at germs and hand-washing.

Healthy Community covers why it is important to be tidy and keep surfaces clean, both at home and at school.

Healthy World includes the history of health and hygiene and how people such as Louis Pasteur and Florence Nightingale have made a difference.

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