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  • Writer's pictureFrederike Schmitz

What do kids want to know about the corona virus and what can I learn from that?

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I’m writing a story about Didi, a brave immune cell and I want this story to be attractive to kids aged 7-10 or older.

But I don’t know many kids that age.

How can I really understand my target audience? And how can I balance what I want to talk about versus what kids really want to know?

To understand what my audience knows and what they might find interesting I analyzed two Q&A sessions about the corona virus with kids. One from Germany and one from the Netherlands. Obviously, this discussion with children is about the virus, but it should tell me a bit about children's understanding of an invisible world.

Here, I would like to analyze similarities from the questions I collected and want to draw possible parallels to what kids might want to know about their own immune cells.

Do you have kids that age? Let me know if you can recognize any of this.

In Germany there’s the famous corona virus podcast from NDR which I referred to in an earlier blog about covid-19 vaccines during pregnancy. While this podcast is clearly made for adults - after all it explains complex, ever changing scientific evidence about the corona virus- NDR has also done a Q&A session with Christian Drosten, Head of Virology at the Charite in Berlin with and for kids [in German]. In this podcast kids aged 8-14 years could send the NDR team their questions and Christian would answer them. The podcast was done already in September 2020 but is still very much up to date.

So, what were the questions children asked him?

Here’s a collection of a few of them.

  • If you need to keep 1,5m distance does that mean the virus can jump that far?

  • What does a facial mask do?

  • Where and how does this virus come from? And why is it there?

  • Can you see the corona virus and if so, which color does it have?

  • Why does it have the shape it has?

  • What does the virus do in the human body?

  • How is that possible that some people don’t notice anything when infected?

  • When is the vaccine ready?

  • Can the corona virus change itself?

  • Can the virus be good for something?

  • How long does the virus survive outside?

  • When is the pandemic over?

In the Netherlands the Nationale Wetenschapsagenda (NWA; National Research Agenda) also hosted a couple of Q&A sessions about the virus on facebook and instagram in April 2020 [in Dutch].

Here’s a collection of the questions they got asked.

  • I have a certain underlying disease. Will I get sick when I get the corona virus?

  • I’m worried about the situation. How can I deal with it?

  • Can the virus survive on my toy?

  • Where does the virus come from?

  • How do you know that you’re immune from the virus?

So, what can I learn from all these questions?

Here are a few of my main takeaways.

Children, like adults need to visualize the virus

A virus. So small you can’t possibly see it. Yet, it affects all of us.

Children, like adults want to visualize it in order to understand it better.

It helps a great deal to know what things look like in order to talk about it. Questions like “Can you see the virus?” “Which color and shape does it have?” seem rather irrelevant but probably help children to understand the virus better.

I think the same will apply to immune cells. How many of us have actually seen an immune cell in real life? I remember bringing my husband to the lab while doing my PhD on a weekend because I had to ‘feed my cells’ and he really wanted to see this. I guess he was envisioning a sort of zoo trip including feeding-of-the-lions. When I told him to look through the microscope, he was rather disappointed.

These round shaped droplets? These are cells? They don’t move?

Hmm, no. Sorry. Yes, these are cells and they look happy because they are nice and round and not shrunken up and crippled.

But he didn’t know that.

We should have probably looked for a way better resolution microscope. Chances were this would have been way more impressive!

You’ve maybe seen some of these images by my friend ‘s guest blog from het fable atelier. Also, she needed to ‘see what cells look like in real life’ before starting to draw them.

I guess most of us need to see before we understand.

Kids take things very literal

So, tell me.

Why do we have to stay away from each other for 1.5m? Why not 2m? What about 1,7m?

Very good question!

After all this number is quite arbitrary. Or should I say, it’s an average?

Often, we adults, realize that things don’t always make a lot of sense and are too literal.

Take the 1,5m.

Does it mean I’m safe when I’m 1,6m away from an infected person? What about 2m? Or the reverse. Am I getting infected when I’m closer than 1,5m?

Often these rules are made for the masses of people but don’t make a lot of sense for the individual. Of course, you could get infected when you stay within 2m distance if the room you’re meeting in is badly ventilated, the person is coughing like crazy or you stay inside the room for long periods of time. But how long exactly? Nobody will know this, all that scientists can say is that on average it’s safer when you stay 1,5m away from that person.

“If you need to keep 1,5m distance does that mean the virus can jump that far?”

I would interpret this question as a call to further explain. Why 1,5m? Because this is the distance the virus can travel?

And how does it travel? Can a virus jump? How else should it move from one person to another?

If you want to explain science to kids, you probably have to realize that they take things very literal and draw conclusions based on their own world.

If they want to get from point A to B and cross 1,5m they probably have to jump.

So, viruses do too? Who would know that they are floating through the air?

Children might not be interested in the problems as much as in the solutions

Take the question, if the vaccines are there already. Obviously, the podcast was recorded last year, when COVID-19 vaccines weren’t yet approved and/or we had a scarcity of vaccines.

But if adults tell children that vaccines are part of the solution to get out of the pandemic (“When is the pandemic over?”) they might simply accept it.

A friend told me before that she thinks kids are not so much interested in problems but rather in possible solutions. I find this a fascinating statement.

What do you think? Do you recognize this?

The big question that we – adults- are discussing now of course is, whether it’s safe and effective to vaccinate kids.

Should we vaccinate kids? And if yes, at what age?

I’m curious what kids (will) decide. And what influence the parent’s will have on their decision. I for my part know that when my parents aren’t sure something is a good thing to do (like vaccinating when pregnant) I hesitate a lot more and have doubt.

Fortunately, I’m knowledgeable and independent enough to decide on my own, but kids aren’t. And how will parents decide for their kids when they’re much younger? Say, 3 years like my daughter?

Do you have young kids? Do you think you’ll want your children vaccinated against COVID-19?

Kids also want to understand the bigger picture

How is everything connected?

“What does a facial mask do?” Why do we carry it?

Because we want to protect each other from picking up the virus when it travels (or jumps) through the air. In the NDR podcast a lot of questions were asked about masks. How to wear them correctly, how often to change them. Here again this tells me that kids are often pragmatic. It affects them and they want to understand the how and why.

“How long does the virus survive outside?” or “Can it survive on my toy?”

Again, important questions that affect the child on a personal level. If I borrow a book from a classmate who has corona, will I get the virus by touching the book? In the NDR podcast Christian Drosten made clear that a virus, as it is living in a wet small particle, can dry up quickly and then just dies. So, once the mask is dry, the virus is likely dead. On a surface of a book the virus particles will also dry out quickly and therefore poses a low risk of infecting the person touching it.

“Where and how does this virus come from? And why is it there?” Good questions.

Scientists all over the world would like to have an answer to this question.

Adults- like children- want to know how it’s all connected. How does the puzzle pieces fit into the bigger picture?

“What does the virus do in the human body?”

“How do you know that you’re immune from the virus?” and “How is that possible that some people don’t notice anything when infected?” shows me that children also want to know what happens when the virus enters the body and how we deal with it.

I hope to be able to answer at least the first question with my book.

The last question is still a big mystery and a topic that lots of scientists would like to answer. It would help us predict who is at high risk and why and then help us find a working treatment for the ones who do get seriously ill.

I also asked around on twitter what kids want to know about their immune system and questions like “What does the immune system do when a virus breaks in? and “Why doesn’t the immune system work properly in some people” came up (Thanks to @babypraat).

Both interesting fundamental questions that I can hopefully (partially) answer with my book.

Do you have more questions from kids that age? What do they want to know about their own immune cells? Leave me a message here in the comments section or contact me on twitter or by email.


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