How to tell my child?

The flood of information that has been spread about the corona virus and Covid-19 since the outbreak of the pandemic is immense. Much of this information is confusing, sometimes contradictory or even frightening. Adults can usually classify and understand this information. Children, on the other hand, who do not understand a large part of the information and can only interpret the behaviour of adults to a limited extent, may feel insecure. Why are my parents so tense even though everyone can be at home together? Why am I not allowed to see my friends or grandparents anymore? And what is that “Corona” anyway, which everybody is constantly talking about?

Making the virus tangible for children contributes to their understanding.

Even without understanding the content in detail, children feel that something is happening in their daily lives. In order for children to understand these changes in everyday life, adults must explain them without overwhelming the children with the information. Children’s rights grant every child the right to information. This means that children have the right of free access to information and media appropriate for children [1]. A fundamental element of health literacy is accessible and adequately provided information. But how can one explain in a child-friendly way what is currently happening and why?

Since the Corona pandemic has become part of our daily lives, many parents (but also teachers or child carers) ask themselves how they can explain the current situation to their children in a way that is suitable for their age. On one hand this has to be done with regard to medical facts, on the other hand with regard to their economical and social impact. But there is also a need for simple instructions that are suited for everyday life and understandable for children.  This is for example crucial in order to implement the federal hygiene regulations.

The following principles have been compiled by taking into account various sources and serve as a guideline to support children in understanding and classifying current events:

  • Use a plain language (don’t use technical terms, use metaphors)
  • Stay close to everyday life (What does this mean specifically for us as a family?)
  • Be honest and say what you don’t know or understand yourself (How much longer will this take?)
  • Take away the fear (Children usually have only mild symptoms. / If we follow the rules, we are safe.)
  • Explain to the children what they can personally do to help (Wash your hands thoroughly, respect the distance rule)
  • Research the information together with the children

The invisibility of the virus naturally makes it difficult to impart information to children. Even distance and hygiene rules have no direct, visible effect. In addition, children hardly ever contract Covid-19 and if they do, the symptoms and course of the disease are usually mild. It is therefore difficult for children to understand why it is important to follow strict behavioural rules. Many information services therefore try to make the virus more comprehensible by visualising it.

Literature shows that explanatory pictures support the understanding of health-related information [2]. The use of plain language in combination with pictures, such as in cartoons, is therefore a good strategy to communicate information in a way understandable to children [3]. Simple and easy-to-read images are important. A fictional character can help children to identify with the content. Children tend to prefer simple, friendly cartoon-like characters with exaggerated facial expressions that are easy to read [4]. In addition, children appreciate humorous elements, especially in difficult topics [3].

Information for children on the current pandemic has quickly spread via the Internet, social media and official channels. Most of these are available free of charge. The following examples can be used to try to give an assessment of which offers are appropriate for children and serve to improve their understanding.

Simple experiments that can be reproduced at home have a high learning effect. The “anti-virus glitter experiment” for example has become a viral hit. Colourful glitter particles can be used to teach even small children in a playful way how viruses stick to their hands and how important it is to wash their hands thoroughly.

Sticky glitter on the hands visualises the virus, which can only be removed by thoroughly washing the hands.
(Source: https://www.facebook.com/stefanie.ehlers1/posts/3292833690745322, accessed on 06.05.2020)

There are already numerous picture books available that explain the virus and its effects to the younger ones. The range here spans from self-drawn DIY books to commercial offers, with a wide qualitative spectrum. The contents are either fictional fantasy stories or realistic scenarios. From a didactical point of view, contents can be more easily transferred to one’s own everyday life, if the learning and practice situations match a child’s frame of reference. Fantasy stories, on the other hand, encourage children to explore the boundaries between reality and fiction and therefore serve more as a stimulus for discussion [5].

Explanatory picture books 
(Left: Therefore we stay at home of Lea Hillerzeder and Agi Malach; Middle: Understanding the Corona Crisis – a story for kindergarten children by Ursula Leitl; Right: Coronavirus by Nosy Crow and Beltz & Gelberg, the book is available as a free download)

For older children and teenagers there are various cartoons and comic books that deal with Corona. Non-fiction cartoons are a well suited medium to illustrate abstract or complex contents by reducing complexity [6].

(Picture: Malaka Gharib / npr, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/02/28/809580453/just-for-kids-a-comic-exploring-the-new-coronavirus, accessed on 06.05.2020)

Many explanatory videos can already be found online. The virus is usually depicted here as a nasty little monster that needs to be fought. Many of the videos are rather doctrinal, but offer a good overview of the cause and effect of the pandemic.  They explain how to protect yourself and how each individual can contribute to improving the situation. Depending on the age of the target group, they are of varying complexity and length. There are also offers tailored to different cultures. 

Explanatory film for Swiss children on SRF my school. (retrieved on 06.05.2020)

“Corona Se Daro Na” – Children’s Awareness Song in Hindi (by Kutuki; retrieved 06.05.2020)

Generally speaking, children want to be informed even about complex (health) issues [7]. In the end, it is a matter of making the relevant information accessible to children according to their age and situation, classifying it and discussing it with them. Authenticity and honesty are paramount when communicating with children.


References

[1] https://www.bsv.admin.ch/bsv/de/home/sozialpolitische-themen/kinder-und-jugendfragen/kinderrechte.html (retrieved 11.05.2020)

[2] Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Grootens-Wiegers, P., de Vries, M. C., van Beusekom, M. M., van Dijck, L., van den Broek, J. M. (2015). Comic strips help children understand medical research. Targeting the informed consent procedure to childrens’s needs. Elsevier Ireland Ltd.

[4] Kaufmann, B., Drack, M., Scheuermann, A. (2018). Communication aids for nursing staff, foreign language patients and their relatives in paediatric care. Design4Health: Extract of the Proceedings of the 5th Conference on Design4Health. Design4Health: Sheffield.

[5] https://www.spektrum.de/news/wie-fantasie-kindern-beim-lernen-hilft/1431798 (retrieved 11.05.2020)

[6] Hangartner, U. (2016). Sachcomics. In: Abel, J., Klein, C. (Hrsg.) Comics und Graphic Novels. J. B. Metzler, Stuttgart.

[7] Olsen, P. R., Smith, S. (2018). Assisting adolescents and young adults with cancer to develop knowledge, competence and best practice, Springer International Publishing AG, S. 88.

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Beatrice Kaufmann

Beatrice Kaufmann works as a research associate at the Bern University of the Arts (HKB). Her field of interest is health care communication design and social design. She has extensive practical experience as a graphic designer and illustrator.

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