How to Teach Hand Washing to Preschoolers

Teaching Hand washing to Preschoolers

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"Wash your hands!" It's a well-worn phrase that parents often say on repeat. Whether your child is exiting the bathroom, has come in from playing from outside, is about to sit down for a meal, or in any circumstance where they might not be totally clean, washing hands is something that should become second nature. 

With concerns about the coronavirus dominating conversations and headlines (not to mention the seasonal flu), it's comforting to know that so many people appear to be aware of the need to stop the spread of germs and increase personal hygiene. But one big question remains: Are kids washing their hands correctly?

Does your preschooler know how to really wash their hands the right way? It seems like such a basic task, but even the most basic things need to be taught at some point.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you wash your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with clean, running water and soap, using warm water if it is available.

If clean water is not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be substituted, but note that these types of products don't remove dirt or soil—soap and water really is the best option.

Kids must know the proper way to wash their hands. The CDC reports that many infections are transmitted by hands, in part because we so often touch our mouth, nose, and eyes, allowing the pathogen into our system. In addition, with kids often being near one another at preschool and daycare, sharing snacks, toys, and everything else, washing hands is an important tool in their arsenal to fight germs.

Tips for Teaching Hand Washing

  • Use plain soap and water: Antibacterial soaps have not been proven to be more effective than regular soap. And they may contribute to antibiotic resistance. (Also, bars of soap sitting in water can be contaminated with bacteria, so only use bar soap that is drained properly.)
  • Make it fun: Buy funny, fruit-smelling soaps or ones that feature their favorite characters. Walk into any drugstore, and you can find dozens of different types in all colors and styles.
  • Make sure the sink is accessible: If the sink is too high for your preschooler, invest in a step stool so they can reach the faucet. Also, make sure the soap is within arm's length.
  • Scrub properly: Wash between the fingers, the tops of the hands, and under the nails (not just the palms as many adults and kids do).
  • Talk about how: Bring your little one to the sink and show them exactly how to wash their hands the right way. First, show them the difference between the hot and cold water, marking the two somehow so they won't get confused. (The hot water temperature should be set at about 120 degrees to avoid burns.) Next, review the technique, showing them the proper amount of soap to use (about the size of a quarter if you are using liquid soap) and how to scrub it in.
  • Talk about how long: Make sure children know to scrub for at least 20 seconds. Little ones have no concept of time, so set a timer for 20 seconds or have them sing "Happy Birthday" or the alphabet song twice.
  • Talk about when: Teach your child to wash up before they eat, after they've gone to the bathroom, after they've played with pets or handled pet food or treats, and after they've coughed, sneezed, or blown their nose. This may be second nature to adults, but it's new to kids.
  • Talk about why: Again, what is obvious to adults isn't always to kids. In an age-appropriate way, explain how hand-washing helps remove germs that can make them sick. You can even make a game out of it; send your kids on an "invisible germ hunt," ridding their skin of the microscopic creatures with the only weapon that can destroy them—soap.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers: These can be used as a substitute for hand washing as long as hands are free of dirt and other debris.
  • Wash your own hands: Kids learn best when someone sets a good example. So by washing your own hands in front of your little one, you not only show them the proper technique but also that you think the task is an important, necessary one.
3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When and how to wash your hands.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hygiene fast facts.

  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Antibacterial soap? You can skip it, use plain soap and water.

Additional Reading

By Amanda Rock
Amanda Rock, mom of three, has spent more than a decade of her professional career writing and editing for parents and children.