Handwashing experiment convinces second-graders to wash hands more, cuts school absences

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Getting youngsters to wash their hands can be a cumbersome experience for parents and a daunting one for kids. The thought of germs crawling on our children’s fingers can be frightening in this Purell-crazed world, and now researchers have developed a new, fun way to get kids in the habit of handwashing.

The results were so effective that teachers actually saw a major drop in students staying home sick within a month of the study.

Child washing hands
The thought of germs crawling on our children’s fingers can be frightening in this Purell-crazed world, and now researchers have developed a new, fun way to get kids in the habit of handwashing.

Kids love a good hands-on science experiment. What better way to learn about handwashing than make it an experiment complete with Petri dishes filled with squishy stuff that grows germs?

Researchers from LifeNet Health in Virginia Beach studied infectious-disease prevention and turned the art of handwashing into a science lab. Their results were pretty convincing, even to second-graders. Handwashing or using hand sanitizer dropped microbial growth of bacteria and mold by a whopping 91 percent.

“Hand hygiene is one of the most effective ways to prevent illness, yet is not commonly reinforced,” says Kavita Imrit-Thomas, the study’s lead author and an infectious disease physician, in a press release.

Researchers had 90 second-grade students from five classrooms at a Virginia Beach public school take a culture of their hands before and after either handwashing with soap and water or using hand sanitizer.

Students pressed their palms into Petri dishes filled with agar, which has the consistency of jelly and encourages bacteria and microbes to grow. Then half the children were asked to wash their hands with soap and water while the other half cleaned their hands with hand sanitizer. All then did a second culture with their clean hands.

The kids went about their usual activities then came back for a look at the cultures five days later. Students and teachers peered through microscopes to see the differences between the dirty-hand cultures and the clean-hand cultures. The reduction in bacteria and mold growth ranged from 89 percent to 100 percent among the five classes.

In three of the classrooms, the teachers found that hand sanitizer seemed to work better than handwashing. In the other two classrooms, teachers said either method worked well.

As part of the project, researchers presented a slideshow and gave a demonstration to students on how to clean hands correctly using soap and water or hand sanitizer. They emphasized the important times to clean hands: before eating, after using the bathroom, after blowing the nose and after touching animals. Researchers placed posters showing the correct way to wash hands near each sink the children used.

Researchers also helped the students learn how to wash hands well by using another interesting lab experiment. They sprinkled a germ-simulating liquid on the children’s hands and then had them wash their hands. The researchers then shone a blacklight on their hands and the children could see all the spots they had missed.

It seems the science experiment was a huge success. Teachers said that 30 days after the handwashing experiment began, they were seeing improvements in handwashing behavior ranging from 68 to 100 percent among the five classes. An even bigger plus was the 71 percent reduction in absences due to illness 30 days into the experiment.

“Students were enthusiastic about hand hygiene after such a fun and interactive scientific experiment. This is such an important concept and should be incorporated into the standard curriculum,” concludes Imrit-Thomas.

Study results were presented at the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) IDWeek 2017.