This blog message was contributed by Astrid Cornelis (Thomas More).
What if a 5-year-old asks this question? Flutter the question? Or wait a minute… Explain that viruses can make us sick or catch a cold? Admit you don’t quite know it yourself? Catch a picture book? Nowadays, you can easily find good tips on how to talk to children about the coronavirus, but what if the oldest preschoolers want to know more about bacteria, viruses or other complex scientific mechanisms?
Rhinovirus Rita: a story that explains how we catch a cold
Swedish microbiologist Henrik Brändén writes stories for children on complex scientific topics. In the story “Rhinovirus Rita”, Lotta gets a virus in her throat. Scientific concepts are tailored to a child, without crumbling them. Certain words are made understandable: he calls granulocytes the “cells with the dots” where the dots contain substances to fight against the virus, the macrophages he calls the “vacuum cells” because they eat dead cells and viruses. The explanation in the story goes much further than that viruses are “dirty animals”.
The rhinovirus clings to a cell in the throat wall, scrambles in and … But the “cells with the dots” and the killer cells are now starting to fight against the virus… (Henrik Brändén)
Worried that you’re not a scientific expert?
No problem, following Henrik Brändén. Teachers also dare to read a story about knights and princesses without being able to explain what feudalism is or what exactly the constitutional role of the crown princess is. You don’t have to be an expert to introduce children to them through a story.
Get used to scientific words
Henrik Brändén believes that it is important to read and tell about science, atoms, cells, bacteria, genes, etc. This is how children get used to these words and bond with them. In the end, these words are no longer “frightening” when people learn exactly what they mean.
Teaching methods: story “Rhinovirus Rita” + drama + drawing
In a Swedish study (2019), 25 children between 4 and 8 years old did a project about the story ‘Rhinovirus Rita’. The children listened to the story and acted it out. Then they made drawings about the story. You can admire the drawings on p. 9-13 of this document.
What did children learn from it?
“There were viruses in the throat and Lotta [the name of the girl in the story] felt that it was hurting. She also became tired and they noticed that she had a fever. It was the brain that had started the fever to help to fight against the viruses.” (B6, 5 years)
The children’s learning was divided into 5 levels. The number of preschoolers and primary school children who had learned at each level is given in brackets:
1. Learn about the functioning of the immune system and realize that it really happens in the body when we are sick. (2 preschoolers; 2 primary school children)
2. Learn about the functioning of the immune system, but no realization that this is real. The child sees it as a “story”. (3 preschoolers, 6 primary school children)
3. Patchy learning. For example: “There were vacuum cells, cells with dots and killer cells.” (2 preschoolers, 3 primary school children)
4. Create a new story about bacteria. Although the original story was about viruses, these children made a new story about bacteria themselves. (2 preschoolers, 0 primary school children)
5. No learning. (4 preschoolers, 0 primary school children)
Picture books about these themes
Henrik Brändén is a popular science storyteller at science festivals and in schools. He wrote three stories and drew illustrations himself.
However, there are few books for young children that address such themes. So there are still opportunities for picture book makers to discuss scientific concepts in an enlightening way. With these picture books you can already get started:
- In “Atchoo! How We Catch A Cold” (Read & Sims, 2018) you will learn a lot about how we catch colds.
- “An adventure story about Anna the virus” (Gertony E., 2016) is an English-language adventure story that introduces children to viruses.
- In “Do not lick this book” Ben-Barak and Frost (2019) humorously tell about microbe Min. It contains illustrations of real microbes, and the characters are shaped as the microbes look in real life.
Do you know any interesting picture books that address abstract scientific themes and make them manageable for the oldest preschoolers? Let us know through the comment box.
- Ben-Barak I. & Frost J. (2019). Do not lick this book. . Roaring Brook Press
- Brändén Henrik (2020). Sagor om bakterier, virus och fotsyntes. Consulted at 9 March 2020, on https://henrikbranden.se/meriter/pedagog/sagor-om-bakterier-virus-och-fotosyntes/
- Gertony E. (2016). An adventure story about Anna the virus. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
- Read L. & Sims S. (2018). Atchoo! How We Catch A Cold. Franklin Watts
- Walan S. & Enochsson A.-B. (2019). The potential of using a combination of storytelling and drama, when teaching young children science. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 27(6), 821-836.
- Photo Henrik Brändén by Mattias Burrell source; https://henrikbranden.se/meriter/fotogalleri/
- Picture rhinovirus: http://www.microbiologybytes.com/AJC1/flickr