Theory and practice

Can Opening a Window Really Make Child Care Safer?

Good ventilation can benefit child care long beyond the pandemic.
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January 6, 2021
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It might just be that one of the best defenses against the coronavirus is free. It’s also invisible, and it’s just outside your window.

This isn’t some sphinx riddle — I’m talking about fresh air.

By now, our coronavirus countermeasures are muscle memory. We’ve got socially-distanced drop-offs, we’re cleaning like crazy, and we’ve mastered the art of helping two-year-olds wash their hands.

But if there’s anything we’ve overlooked, it’s good ventilation.

There’s a whole lot of science to show that fresh air is great for children and grown-ups alike. It keeps us happy, it keeps us healthy, it makes indoor spaces into better learning environments. And as child care settings continue to grapple with how to stay open during the pandemic, fresh air takes on a gust of new importance: it helps combat the coronavirus.

Down below, we’ll get into just how good ventilation can make your child care setting safer. We’ll run through easy ways to do it, and why it’ll benefit you even after we’re through with the pandemic.

How does good ventilation protect us from the coronavirus?

As it turns out, we’ve been using fresh air to fight germs for years — even before we knew what germs were.

In the mid-1800s, Florence Nightingale noticed that patients tended to heal better if they’re exposed to fresh air, rather than stuck in stuffy tents or hospital wards. She knew it worked, but she couldn’t quite explain why.

Now that we know about germs, it seems simple. The coronavirus is an airborne disease — if you’re sick, you’ll breathe out little tiny virus particles, which can hang in the air for hours. The more virus particles that might be concentrated in your classroom, the easier it is for someone to breathe them in and get sick. As you probably know, most infections happen indoors.

Obviously, we can’t see the germs hanging in the air. But if the air in a room feels stuffy, stale or musty, odds are it’s not very well-ventilated. And these days, that’s a risk factor.

So how does fresh air help?

It’s about dilution. If you’re constantly mixing in fresh, clean air, it lowers your risk of breathing in enough bits of the virus to get sick. Think about the difference between putting a drop of food colouring into a glass of water, versus into a running stream.

The big ideas

We need more fresh air for child care

The matter of fresh air in our classrooms is bigger than the coronavirus. It’s been an issue since before the pandemic, and it’ll still be around once this virus is long gone.

In 2017, researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs put together a review of studies of ventilation in learning environments — from early education to high school, from all around the world. They found that in most cases, our classroom ventilation rates often fall far short of what health and building standards recommend.

But having good ventilation isn’t just important for fighting the spread of the coronavirus. Decades of research suggest that fresh air can have a big impact on how children (and adults) grow and learn.

Here’s how:

  • Fresh air helps us stay healthy. Studies from schools and child care settings in California and Denmark found that better air ventilation correlates with reduced sick leave rates among children.
  • Fresh air makes us better learners. When we get better ventilation in elementary schools, we see a meaningful rise in students’ test scores. The same goes for grown-ups’ productivity in office buildings. This suggests that fresh air carries similar benefits for the early learners at your child care setting.
  • Fresh air keeps children comfortable. Even if they might not be able to describe it, research suggests that children notice good air quality — and it shapes how comfortable and happy they are indoors at your child care setting.

How much fresh air is enough?

The more people you have in any given space, the more ventilation you’ll need to keep replacing the stale and (potentially) germy air with the fresh stuff. Researchers suggest that it’s best to replace the air in a room between six and ten times per hour.

It’s also key that the new air comes from outside, not another room in your building, because of course people have already breathed in that.

If you’re curious about your own child care setting’s fresh air needs, you might check out the Safe Air Spaces Risk Estimator. It’s a calculation tool that helps you understand how safe your air might be, given the space you have to work with, the number of people, and what they’re doing. It might seem a little complex, but you’ll find an explainer guide at the bottom of the page.

Simple ways to get better ventilation at your child care setting

So do you get all that delicious, healthy fresh air flowing through your child care setting? That’s the million dollar question.

The good news is, there are plenty of different options. And better yet, they’re all easy, and most are cheap or free.

Here’s how you can improve the indoor air quality at your child care center:

  • Set up some fans. Good air circulation helps ensure that little bits of virus aren’t hanging around for too long. The important bit is making sure your fans are blowing air through the room — not just circulating the same air.
  • Open up the windows and doors. During the winter, some child care settings have kept the children’s coats on indoors, so the fresh cold air doesn’t make anyone too chilly. If it’s possible, you could also crack some windows overnight, to air things out before each new day.
  • Get a humidifier. When the air inside has enough moisture, it’s harder for virus particles to stay airborne as long. By some metrics, viruses in overly dry air can survive six times as long as those in appropriately humid indoor air.
  • Buy an air purifier. Air purifiers pull air from the room and pass it through a filter that traps pollutants like airborne virus particles. You could purchase one, or even build a DIY version for cheap.
  • Take things outside. In terms of coronavirus transmission, outside is one of the safest places to be. Not only does the fresh air help whisk away germs, but sunlight may also help destroy the virus when it rests on surfaces.

Now’s a good time to think about how you could explore outdoor learning at your child care. If you’ve never done it before, don’t worry — we’ve got some tips to help you get started, and some great winter outdoor activities to try.

download pdf
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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.