Teaching kids about germs is important, but it can be difficult to explain what bacteria and viruses are to children. You can't see them and you don't realize that you are touching them.
So how do you help them understand? Fun facts about germs and germ activities for kids can help to illustrate how these microorganisms spread and make them less scary. We break down germs for kids and even give tips on how to stay safe this cold and flu season.
What Are Germs? A Simple Explanation for Kids
A simple explanation of germs for kids is that they are tiny living things that can cause part or all of your body to get sick. Technically, germs are any organism that causes an infection, but that explanation is best for older kids. While germs are tiny living things, you can't feel them in or on your body.
In fact, you can't see them without the help of a microscope. Germs can be found everywhere in the world, including inside your body, on the outside of your body, and on the things around you like doorknobs, floors, and even in your foods.
Types of Germs
There are four different types of germs, and some are more dangerous than others. Viruses and bacteria are the most common types of germs that make people sick.
- Bacteria: Bacteria need nutrients, or food, from where they live in order to survive. So, they are just trying to live by eating what's around them. Bacteria can multiply inside or outside the body.
- While some bacteria can make us sick, other types of bacteria are good, like the ones in our intestines. They help us to digest our food!
- Viruses: Unlike bacteria, a virus needs to be inside living cells to grow and multiply. Viruses can live inside plants, animals, or people, and they are known for making them sick.
- Fungi: A fungus is more like a plant, but it can't make its own food. Like bacteria, fungi get nutrients from other living things. Fungi on or in people aren't always dangerous, but they can make you uncomfortable.
- Protozoa: Protozoa like wet environments and spread sickness through water. Sometimes, places inside your body that are very moist, like your intestines, can get sick from protozoa.
It's important for kids to understand that not all germs are bad. They're just like people — sometimes they are hurtful and sometimes they are helpful. So, what types of germs are good for you?
As mentioned above, some types of bacteria actually help people's bodies stay healthy. There are good bacteria that live inside your intestines and help you use up the nutrients from your food to make the waste, otherwise known as your pee and poop, that comes out of your body.
Other good bacteria are used to make medicines that fight sicknesses or make vaccines, also known as "shots," that help your body make an army to fight certain bad types of germs.
Where Do Germs Come From?
Just like plants and animals, germs are "born" from other germs. As germs eat, they grow. As they grow, they make more germs to join their germ family. People accidentally spread these germs by helping them move from one place to another.
How Do Germs Enter Your Body?
Germs enter your body through openings like your nose, mouth, ears, or a cut in your skin. Germs ride in the liquids or in the air that goes into your body or comes out of your body. The most common ways germs get in your body are:
- Saliva (spit)
Infections and Diseases
All germs are just looking for their own food. Some germs "eat" and use their food to make toxins, which can be poisonous to your body and make you sick. Sometimes the germs "eat" up too much and it can damage tiny parts of your body.
When germs enter your body and start to multiply, or add, more germ family members, it's called an infection. When those germs damage tiny parts of your body, and you start to feel sick, it's called a disease.
How Do You Prevent or Kill Bad Germs?
Since bad germs are all around you, it's impossible to avoid or kill them all. But, if you keep yourself and the things around you as clean as you can, it will keep most bad germs away.
Your Immune System Fights Automatically
For people with a healthy immune system, your body tries to get rid of bad germs without you doing anything or even knowing it. When germs enter your body, it's like they hit the "power" button and your immune system turns on.
Your body is made up of tons of tiny building blocks called cells. When the immune system turns on, your body starts to make an army of white blood cells and antibodies. These little fighters try to push the germs out of your body or kill them.
Wash Your Hands
The best way to prevent germs from entering your body is to wash your hands because your hands go inside your body a lot! We touch our faces without even noticing and we eat food throughout the day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests the following guidelines for proper handwashing:
- Wet your hands with clean water. Warm water is not proven to get rid of germs any better than cold water, so you can use either.
- Turn off the water. That way we don't waste water and it's better for our planet.
- Add soap to your hands. Any kind of soap works — anti-bacterial soap has not proven to be better than other kind of soap.
- Rub your hands together to make the soap become bubbly. You should rub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, your palms, and under your fingernails.
- Scrub your hands with the soap for at least 20 seconds. Anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds will work, but 20 is the standard.
- Turn the water back on and rinse all the soap off your hands. Use your hands to rub the soap off all parts of your hands and fingers.
- Dry your hands all the way with a clean towel or by waving them around to air dry.
Use Hand Sanitizer
If you can't wash your hands with soap and water, you can use hand sanitizer to help remove germs. The CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol.
- Put enough sanitizer on one hand to wet both hands completely.
- Rub the sanitizer all over both hands, the way you would rub soap all over if you were washing.
- Keep rubbing until your hands are completely dry.
While it's generally safe to use hand sanitizer with kids, knowing the FDA's safe sanitizer guidelines can be helpful. It's also important to make sure young children don't drink or ingest sanitizer.
Avoid Touching Your Body's Openings
Explain to kids that, since germs enter your body through its openings, it's best to try not to touch these parts of your body. Keeping your fingers out of your nose, mouth, ears, and eyes can help keep germs from getting inside these body parts. If you have a cut or scab on your skin, don't touch it. You can also put a bandage over it to keep germs out.
Keep Germs Out of the Air
Kids should also know that when you cough, sneeze, or spit, germs can fly through the air on tiny droplets of water and get on other people or things. There are a few ways you can help keep germs out of the air:
- If you have to cough, cough straight into the inside part of where your elbow bends. Most of the germs that come out of your mouth will land there instead of flying through the air.
- If you feel like you might sneeze, grab a tissue, and cover your nose with it. You can sneeze most of the germs into the tissue instead of into the air.
- If you know you are sick, try not to keep your distance from other people when you need to talk to them or wear a medical mask to keep your germs from flying out of your mouth and into the air when you talk.
Keep Your Environment and Toys Clean
Learning how to sanitize different types of toys can help you prevent the spread of germs from kid to kid. You can also use germ-killing products on things people tend to touch a lot like doorknobs, handles, and TV remotes.
Kids shouldn't try to sanitize items without the help of an adult. Many sanitizing products contain chemicals that can be harmful when not used correctly.
Take or Use Medicine
Another aspect to teach kids about germs is that there are some medicines that can help prevent certain germs from entering your body. There are also medicines that can help kill germs or get them out of your body. If you go to the doctor, they can do tests to see what kind of germs you have, and they might give you a medicine that gets rid of those germs.
Children should know never to take medicine unless a parent gives it to them. Also, it's important to note that more is not better. Let kids know that the doctor gives a certain amount of medication that has to be taken on a schedule. Taking more than what they tell you to can be very dangerous and can actually make you more sick.
Don't Touch Certain Surfaces Unless There is a Need
Your foot is a fantastic tool for keeping your hands clean. Remind your children, after they are fully potty trained, that when they are done going potty, they can use their foot to flush the toilet.
This also goes for opening doors — if you can push the door open, then use your foot or back instead of grabbing the door handle in public spaces. This can keep their hands clean and avoid picking up unwanted germs.
Additionally, have them take a water bottle to school every day and avoid water fountains, if possible. Many people put their mouths directly on the spout, which can put the germs right where the water comes out!
Another important fact to teach your kids about going potty and germs is that closing the lid can keep the germs where they belong — in the toilet! Researchers have found that "when flushed, toilets expel small particles of water, urine, feces and, at times, dangerous pathogens that are invisible to the naked eye" and that these particles can travel "at speeds of up to 6.6 feet per second and reached 4.9 feet above the toilet within eight seconds."
More Fun Facts About Germs for Kids
Fun facts about germs for kids help kids see the impact germs have on the world.
- Using gel hand sanitizer in a classroom can cut absences by about 20%.
- After you use a toilet, the number of germs on the tips of your fingers doubles.
- When your hands are damp, they spread 1,000 times more germs than when they are dry.
- A single germ can live for up to three hours on the outside of your hand.
- A single germ can turn into over eight million germs in one day.
- The droplets that come out of your nose when you sneeze travel 100 miles per hour and can stay in the air for 10 minutes.
- If you put all the viruses on the planet next to each other, they could stretch for 100 million light years.
Facts about germs for kids can help them better understand the impact of their actions, but they can also cause them to become overly concerned about keeping germs away. Make sure that they understand that as long as they practice good handwashing and are careful about touching their faces and sneezing into their elbows, they will likely stay safe from most germs.
Germ Activities for Kids
Parents can teach their kids about germs and hygiene from the time you give them their first bath. When you make learning about germs a part of your normal daily routine, it will be easier to teach.
Explain to kids of all ages why you're doing things like washing hands before you eat to help normalize germ prevention. You can also add fun germ activities for kids to your lesson to help illustrate how germs spread.
Play Germ Tag
Some kids learn better with visuals, so show them how germs spread with a fun game of germ tag. You'll need a big open space and a bunch of stickers — the colored round ones you might use to mark yard sale items work great.
- Give each child a page of stickers that is a different color or design than anyone else's. They should stick one sticker on their own shirt.
- On "Go," kids run around trying to stick one of their stickers on every other child.
- At the end of the allotted time, collect all unused stickers.
- Talk about how each child now has a bunch of "germs" from other people along with their own germs.
Hold a Handwashing Challenge
This can be a great classroom activity for teachers hoping to teach the importance of washing your hands well. Glo Germ is a company that makes tools to help kids better see how easily germs can stick around. For the challenge, you simply apply the Glo Germ lotion or powder to each child's hands. Then, turn off the lights and have them hold them under the blacklight. Yuck! Germs are everywhere!
Next, have everyone head to the sink following the same instructions in this article. After everyone is done and their hands are "clean" pull out the blacklight again. The winner is the kid with the hands that glow the least! This can be a great teaching tool and help kids see the areas that they neglect the most during handwashing.
Some of the Glo Germ Kits can be expensive. If you want to try this at home, you can buy Glo Germ lotion and then purchase the blacklight separately! Amazon has a ton of options for an affordable price.
Preschool Handwashing Challenge
For the younger members of the household, you can hold a more simple handwashing challenge. All you need is a few surgical gloves, Expo markers, a large plastic container, soap and water.
- Fill your basin with water.
- Blow up your gloves like balloons and tie off the ends.
- Use the Expo markers to draw "germs" all over them.
- Then, let your kids show you how well they can wash all the germs off!
Anyone who has used glitter for an art project knows that it gets everywhere. Well so do germs! This makes it an easy tool for teaching kids about germs. Pour a small amount of glitter in your kids' hands and tell them to rub them together until it all sticks to their skin. These are the "germs."
Then, send them off to play (preferably in a single room). After just about 15 minutes, they should start to notice fewer "germs" on their hands because they have been spreading them around!
Write a Daily Hand Journal
Older kids can track their own hand use by keeping a log of what they touch. Ask kids to carry a journal around with them for the entire day and write down everything their hands touch from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed. How many things are on the list?
Read Fun Books About Germs for Kids
You can find great picture books for kids on any subject, even germs. Read one or two together, then do a craft or activity related to that book. A few great options to get you started are:
- Do Not Lick This Book! by Idan Ben-Barak is a funny interactive book featuring a microbe named Min who goes on adventures inside your body.
- Usborne Books has a great lift-the-flap book called What Are Germs? by Katie Daynes. This introduces many of the concepts we have gone over in this article.
- Kids can learn fun facts about germs in Melvin Berger's Germs Make Me Sick! as well.
Sing Fun Handwashing Songs
Most people know that you can sing Happy Birthday twice to measure the right amount of time for handwashing. But, there are tons of other great songs you can learn and sing to time your handwashing. Any song that is about 20 seconds long will do!
- If You're Happy and You Know It - Use "wash your hands" for the verse.
- Baby Shark - Sing the verses for baby shark, mommy shark, and daddy shark.
- Family Finger Song - Choose any two family members and sing a verse for each of them.
- Into the Unknown - Sing the chorus, including Elsa's lines and the sound she hears, from this Frozen 2 song.
- You're Welcome - You can sing the chorus from Maui's song in Moana twice.
Entertaining Videos About Germs for Kids
Catchy songs and explanatory cartoons made for kids use language kids will understand. Germ videos for kids also help make learning about germs more fun and less scary.
Sid the Science Kid Germs Video
Younger kids can watch a three-minute clip from an episode of Sid the Science Kid to learn all the basics of what germs are and how to prevent their spread.
The Journey of a Germ Song
The episode of Sid the Science Kid about germs also features a fun song, called Journey of a Germ, in an animated video showing how germs spread from person to person.
How Germs Spread Video for Older Kids
Older kids who are too mature for silly cartoons can watch this explanatory video from Cincinnati Children's hospital.
Wash Your Hands Rap
Children's artist Jack Hartmann presents the CDC's handwashing guidelines in a fun rap song.
Get a Grip on Germs
Germs can be dangerous, but it's important for kids to understand there's more to germs than hurting people. When you present a balanced view of germs in a calm and understandable manner, kids will see that they have some power over germs.
Fun games, videos, and stories about germs for kids can help them to better understand that germs shouldn't feel scary or overwhelming. It is just important that we know about them!