Joel and Owen on a swing set

Making masks fun

Help your children get comfortable with the new normal

By Kim Hart Macneill

Students returned to school in September facing new rules to fight the spread of COVID-19. The biggest change for many will be wearing masks.

All students in Grade 4 and up must wear non-medical masks unless they are sitting at a desk that is at least 2 metres away from other desks and facing in the same direction. That means in most classrooms, on hallways, and on buses. 

“This change is based on new guidelines released by the Public Health Agency of Canada,” said Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health, on Aug. 10. “They now recommend masks for children ages 10 and up because it’s that age group that may be as likely as adults to transmit the virus. Children under the age of 10 are much less likely to transmit COVID-19.”

Heather Lewis puts a mask in her son's backpack
A few extras for the backpack this year. 
Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire

Heather Lewis’s sons, aged eight and 10, both wear masks when they go out in public and now at school. “They’re very much about following the rules,” she says. “I think in some ways kids get told that this is the rules and think ‘Oh OK, well, we have to do it.’ They can actually be better than the adults sometimes at remembering what to do.”

Before school started, Lewis took the boys to a playground and they decided to wear their masks while playing. Lewis pointed out that it was a large playground with lots of opportunity to social distance, but the boys said they’d prefer to wear their masks. When other children asked why they explained the masks made them feel safe. 

Jane Marchildon is a child life specialist at the IWK in Halifax. Her specialty is helping children become comfortable with medical environments and procedures. She says the key to helping children get comfortable wearing masks is education, preparation, and praise. 

Children love to know why. “[The] simplest thing is to say is that we wear masks to keep the germs that we have in our own bodies to ourselves,” says Marchildon. “We’re doing that as a way to help the people that we care about—and that might be our family, our friends, our grandparents, people in our community—healthy.” 

Jane Marchildon
Jane Marchildon, Child Life Specialist at the IWK.
Photo: Ryan Wilson/IWK

It’s important to explain why masks are necessary, otherwise children won’t understand their importance. Keep your explanations age appropriate to avoid passing on adult anxieties. The best way to do this, says Marchildon, is ask your child questions like: do you know why we wear masks? Why are there are arrows on the floor at the grocery store?” 

“If parents know that their children have been talking about the Coronavirus or COVID, then they might be more prepared to have a discussion about it,” says Marchildon. “Kids who really have not heard about it might be able to relate something to like the flu to make it more applicable to them.”

Preparation is key to people of all ages getting comfortable masking up, says Marchildon. Lewis didn’t mask her children in public before it became mandatory, but when it did she started practising at home with the boys. Let children try wearing and removing masks at home. Explain the importance of washing hands before touching a clean mask and after taking off a dirty mask, and not touching the mask through the day. 

Another part of preparation for Lewis is making sure there are enough masks. Before school started she says they had about 50 for the four-person family. She planned to send each child to school with three masks and labelled resealable bags for clean and used masks.

Practice is key to sustaining habits, says Marchildon. She suggests a few simple ways to help children grow comfortable with masks. First, turn mask wearing into a game. Challenge the entire family to watch a 30-minute TV show together while wearing masks without touching their faces. The home is a low pressure environment, so it’s a great place to practise, plus when all ages participate it shows that mask wearing is important for everyone.

Another simple activity is listing all of the places where masks are required, like the mall, school, on the bus, in the library, and so on. This give children the opportunity to ask questions about why and when to wear a mask. 

Praise is key. “We know it is hard for kids to do new
and challenging things,” Marchildon says. “We really want to provide them with positive feedback like ‘You’re doing a really good job keeping your friends healthy and giving them support by doing that.’”

Finally, let kids pick out their masks. That might mean helping to choose a pattern at the fabric store for homemade masks, or buying a pre-made mask in the child’s favourite colour. “Kids get to say this is my mask and I have a feeling of ownership and proudness of wearing my mask, because it’s a part of me,” Marchildon says. This may also help reduce the number of lost masks for the school year.  

Mask myths debunked

There’s a lot of incorrect info on the internet about masks. Make sure you’re following up-to-date medical advice. Sources like the World Health Organization (who.int), Health Canada (canada.ca/en/health-canada.html), and provincial government (novascotia.ca) are reliable.

Myth: Wearing a non-medical mask won’t help stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Cloth and disposable masks are a key component of slowing the spread of the virus. Countries that encourage mask wearing have lower infection rates and few deaths, according to June 2020 research in The Lancet. Masks trap droplets that people release when they speak, cough, or sneeze. Virus particles travel on these droplets to infect others. By wearing masks, we all protect each other.

Myth: I don’t need to wear a mask if I’m social distancing.

The Mayo Clinic says wearing a mask is one step in slowing the spread of COVID-19. In addition to wearing a mask, following these behaviours will help slow the spread:

• Keep 2 metres of physical distance, about two adult arm lengths, from other people.

• Limit in-person meetings.

• Wash your hands often with soap. Use hand sanitizer when you don’t have access to water. 

• Stay home if you do not feel well.

• Self-isolate if you have been around someone who is sick or tested positive.

Myth: Wearing a mask will increase the amount of carbon dioxide I breathe and will make me sick.

Some surgeries can take up to 10 hours. Surgeons wear masks the entire time without getting hypoxia, a low level of oxygen in the blood caused by too much carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide you exhale will diffuse through your mask naturally, just as oxygen does when you breathe in. 

Myth: Only people with symptoms need to wear masks.

Based on July 2020 data, the CDC says that 40% of people who have COVID-19 are asymptomatic, which means they never exhibit symptoms despite having the virus. It estimates that half of all infections are transmitted before the carrier displays any symptoms.

Read more from our Fall 2020 edition of Our Children.

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