Rhyme & rinse: Study finds nursery songs can help kids learn proper hand hygiene

OTTAWA, Ont. — As they explore and interact with an exciting new world, hygiene isn’t exactly the first priority on young children’s minds. Usually, it’s up to parents, teachers, and other caregivers to ensure that little Timmy washes his hands after playing on the floor or touching something he probably shouldn’t have. Interestingly, a new study has found a unique way to instill proper hand hygiene habits in kids, and consequently prevent the spread of infections: changing the lyrics of popular nursery rhymes.

This mnemonic strategy, in which hand-washing instructions are clearly stated within the beats of the rhyme, makes learning and remembering these habits much easier and more fun for young children.

It’s already common practice for young children to be taught about the importance of hand hygiene in school. The World Health Organization recommends kids be taught a six-step hand cleaning technique designed to effectively wipe out bacteria and viruses. However, mastering and memorizing all six steps is often times difficult for kids.

While prior studies had investigated the influence of school hand hygiene programs on infection rates and academic attendance, not much work had been done regarding the strategies being used to teach children this technique for washing hands.

So, the study’s authors, led by Dr. Nisha Thampi from CHEO, a pediatric health and research center in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada examined a collection of 15 online videos intended to teach children healthy hand hygiene habits. The research team wanted to see if any of the videos included a nursery rhyme or musical mnemonic. Surprisingly, none of the studied videos used a song to teach children the proper steps for washing their hands. Even the videos that did include some of the WHO-recommended steps were longer than the prescribed optimal duration (20-30 seconds) for such content, likely losing most children’s attention before completion.

After finding no hand hygiene videos that used a song, the researchers decided to develop their own using the very popular nursery melody of “Brother John” (“Frère Jacques”). The lyrics themselves were constructed in close collaboration with young children, to make sure the song’s target audience would enjoy, and most importantly understand, the song.

In order to test the song’s effectiveness, a group of children were gathered to listen to the rhyme a few times. Then, fluorescent markings were applied to the children’s hands before each child was asked to wash off all the markings with soap and water. After each child was done washing, their hands were checked for any remaining fluorescence.

Sure enough, the children were much more adept at washing their hands after learning the simple and fun hygiene rhyme.

“With its catchy tune and clear, lyrical instructions, our technique offers the opportunity to develop hand hygiene muscle memory, self-correction, and public health gains among children,” the study concludes.

The study is published in The BMJ.

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