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What Children Knew About Germs

Child development and psychology researchers alike have been interested in children’s understanding of contagion since long before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Children’s concepts of transmission of contagious diseases have been interesting to researchers, as the topic combines biological processes, behavioral routines (such as washing hands, etc.), and social norms. Research from the 1990s through the early aughts and even the 2010s was inconclusive in determining an entirely robust timeline of how children understand germ theory and illness transmission. Research says that children as young as 4 years old, a typical American preschool age, can make connections between illness and contact, but it definitely takes longer for children to understand the increased nuance of communicability of diseases. More research, such as Myant & Williams (2005) and Legare et al. (2009), suggests that a more complex understanding of transmission develops closer to middle childhood.

How the Pandemic has Shaped Children’s Awareness of Germs

A study done by Lauren Leotti et al. in 2021 studied children’s  understanding of contagion as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The study compared children’s knowledge of risks and preventative behaviors prior to the pandemic with their understanding in 2021. Leotti et al. found greater declarative knowledge of contagion and increased causal reasoning in the children studied post-pandemic as opposed to the group studied pre-pandemic, which the authors suggest is an example of an informal learning experience in young children (Leotti et al., 2021). Indeed, school closures, infections of friends, and quarantines of loved ones can serve as teaching moments for young children, as many adults and parents have had to have tough conversations or otherwise learn to navigate discussions of germs and hygiene with their children.

Modeling a Healthy Relationship with Illness, Anxiety, and Hygiene for Children

As parents, guardians, and positive adult role models in children’s lives, it’s important to demonstrate how to have a healthy relationship with germs, sanitation, and hygiene. With pandemic-level viruses, seasonal illnesses, and everyday germs alike, children will adapt the behavior they see modeled along with internalizing the messages explicitly communicated to them. Jessica Grose, Parenting Columnist for the New York Times, recommends a few ways to communicate positive messages surrounding viruses to your kids: process your own anxiety first, talk at an age-appropriate level, and practice good hygiene. Specifically when discussing Covid-19, Grose urges parents to read the news or listen to podcasts on their own instead of with children. By doing so, parents can work through their anxiety first, which can be helpful in terms of not sharing unnecessary nerves with children. When ready to chat about Covid, communicable illnesses, and germs, Grose says that communicating the message in an age-appropriate manner is key. This depends on the parent, child, and how much information the child already knows, and should be developed strategically in order to not overwhelm the child.

Lastly, Grose, citing NYU pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Rebecca Pellett Madan, M.D., says that emphasizing good hygiene is another important tool in keeping kids healthy and safe. Washing hands before meals and after children have used the restroom are particularly important, along with when they come in from playing outside or coming home from a play-date. Other ways to emphasize and model good hygiene are by limiting bodily fluid transmission (coughing into one’s arm, sneezing into a tissue, etc.) and cleaning household surfaces regularly. PureLine, which typically works directly with businesses to fumigate and decontaminate large-scale facilities, recently launched a new product available directly to consumers: Pure 100 Spray. This spray is powerful yet gentle, containing only two ingredients, one of which is water. The product is EPA approved and registered as safe to use on children’s toys. Visit the Pure 100 website to learn more about the spray and purchase a bottle to continue modeling strong hygienic practices for the children in your life.


Lauren Leotti, Nicole Pochinki, Dakota Reis, Elizabeth Bonawitz, & Vanessa LoBue (2021). Learning about germs in a global pandemic: Children’s knowledge and avoidance of contagious illness before and after COVID-19. Cognitive Development, 59. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogdev.2021.101090

Grose, Jessica (2020). How to talk to kids about Coronavirus. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/parenting/coronavirus-kids-talk.html?smid=url-share