by Meghan Fitzgerald
Learning about personal space is not new for young kids. From very early on, kids clearly enjoy and don’t enjoy moments when another person is in their personal space, and they learn about personal space from one another. Babies may crawl over one another to get from point A to point B, but even infants quickly develop strategies (or screeches) to express or meet their need for personal space.
Educators and care providers use metaphors like “personal space bubbles” to help children conceptualize personal space and have words to describe their needs and the needs of others.
You can think of a child’s personal space bubble as having four zones—each ranging a bit in size depending on the child. That innermost zone for family? It’s called the “intimate” zone and runs really close. The second inner zone is, “personal space,” is the zone in which little kids connect with close friends and playmates, and that zone stretches quite wide—up to 4 feet in normal times. Third, comes the "social" space zone, ranging from 4 to 10 feet and reserved for acquaintances. Then, finally a much larger outer "public" zone for much more distant interactions.
So, during this current moment, when we ask kids to keep a 6-foot space bubble while they play with close friends, we’re asking them to add just a bit more space to the good old personal space bubble. Now, this is not easy since kids' ability to control the impulse to be close to friends does not fully develop until they are in adolescence. So, it will take practice and reminders. And, yes, they will likely forget and need even more reminders. But they can do it, and as they learn, they will not only get to play together again with family and friends—something our kiddos need that so badly—they'll learn more about personal space.
There is a totally natural and essential social lesson embedded in learning about space bubbles—and one that little kids can and do learn with practice. We could decide that teaching kids to mind a 6-foot bubble is “just too hard.” But what opportunities open up for our kids when we remember that little kids are supposed to learn to mind personal space, and that we know how to teach them about it? Rather than focusing on how sad it is that kids need to lose two feet of personal space during this time, what if we saw this as an opportunity to help kids learn even better to understand and respect the personal space of others?
Blow bubbles together; it is summer after all! While you are watching, catching and popping bubbles, start to talk about personal space bubbles. You could say something like, “Did you know that we all have invisible bubbles around us—just like these bubbles? [pause—kind of mind-blowing] Our bubbles give us a space just for us—where we like just really close family like [mama, dad, nana, etc.] to be. Friends and other people stay just outside of our bubble.” If kids latch on, chat a bit about this idea, sharing times when you like people inside your bubble and when you like more space, etc.
Then, start to use the metaphor of the bubble in day-to-day life. If kids are getting too close to someone, you can remind them, “Lovebug, you can be close to [friend], but give a little more space for their bubble.” You can even ask kids if they want a bit more space by saying something like, “Is [e.g. your sibling/daddy] coming into your bubble? Would you like more space, or do you want a [that person] in your bubble?”
Perhaps the best tool we’ve used to teach our kids what 6 feet really is the “6-foot string.” To make one, measure out a 6-foot piece of string. Put a little tape on each end to make it durable and, if you have colorful tape, snazzy. Then, introduce it as a special new toy—the 6-foot string! What can we do with this string?! The possibilities are endless.
As you play with it, you can talk to kids about social distance in a really natural way. “You know, this string is 6 feet. This is how much of a bubble we’ve got to give friends/grandma/other people when we play/hike/go to the store, etc.” Throw it in your pocket or purse, and it’s there whenever you need to revisit what 6 feet really is. Though it’s hard for little kids to conceptualize a distance, with enough practice (especially the FUN kind), they can build a physical memory for the distance that they can readily apply in social situations.
Some of our favorite ways to play with 6-foot strings: Hold 2 ends and walk or spin around; Limbo; Lift the string up and down to make waves; Gentle tug o’ war; Lay it down and walk along it like a tightrope; Play charades or family games from 6 feet apart.
Some adults are actually 6 feet or more from head to toe. For many of us, it just takes adding in our arms to get there. So, you are actually a pretty great tool for showing what 6-feet really is. Just lie down on the ground and let the fun begin! We’ve enjoyed lots of things with one of us lying down in the middle, and it’s pretty silly fun. Some favorite ways to play with players on either end of an adult lying in the middle: Ball toss (with a soft ball); tea party (with daddy’s legs as a table); cover the adult (by tossing towels or pieces of fabric); story time; charades (prone parent is dedicated guesser); Simon Says; and act like an animal/others guess who you are.
After doing this a few times, we’ve also been able to remind kids with, “keep about a dad apart while you play” or “let’s give those (other hikers) a mom of space.” Where kids can struggle to know what 6 feet is, they can picture and, with practice, they can feel and put to good use what a “you” of space is.
Great books can make great teaching tools. Here are a few of our favorite books for surfacing the topic of personal space (and one about to arrive on the scene)!
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