Personal space: A social skill children need and adults can teach

Learn how to teach the children in your life about personal space and why it’s important.

A visual cue about personal space for a preschooler can include having the child spin in a circle with her arms outstretched. Photo credit: Pixabay.
A visual cue about personal space for a preschooler can include having the child spin in a circle with her arms outstretched. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Most young children want to touch everything and everyone as they learn about the world around them. They lick, poke, slap, and hug things and people with little concern about what those objects are or who they belong to. Very young children are generally used to being physically close to family members. Some things, however, are “off limits” to touch and in reality, there are some people who should be kept at arm’s length. How can you teach this concept to children?

Visual clues in regard to personal space work best for very young children. Fences are obvious boundaries and define a specific space. It is often necessary to “fence” in an area to keep a baby or toddler safe while they are learning about where they can go and what is acceptable to touch. Baby gates, fencing a play area or building a furniture boundary using kitchen chairs can all provide a clear definition of a child’s play space. At the infant/toddler stage, personal boundaries are all about safety.

As children grow and develop it is important to have family rules that define personal spaces for each family member. Everyone needs a space that is just theirs. Many personal spaces can be defined by teaching children to close the door when they are in the bathroom or bedroom or when they are getting dressed or undressed. Set an example for your child by talking out loud about intentions that involve personal space for yourself or your belongings. “I need to change my shirt and I need some privacy. I think I’d better go to my bedroom,” or, “I think I should put this figurine from Grandma in a safe place where the baby can’t reach it.”

A visual cue about personal space for a preschooler can include having the child spin in a circle with her arms outstretched. Explain that the space within the circle is her own personal space and discuss who she might allow inside of the circle. Jump ropes also work well for this activity as a child can fashion the rope in a small circle to discuss who might be allowed in their smallest personal space circle (mom, dad, grandma, etc.). Expanding the circle he might add other family members and acquaintances who would be allowed in an expanded circle. Help the child with suggestions as he explores who should and shouldn’t be in his personal space. Don’t forget to include a time in the discussion when you talk about when it is okay to be in someone’s personal space (examples: when the preschool teacher has children stand in line or a room is really crowded). An even larger rope circle can expand on the discussion of personal space with a preschooler when talking about “strangers”. Hula hoops are another good tool to use to explain personal space to children.

In the children’s book, “Personal Space Campby Julia Cook, hula hoops are used to teach a young boy, Louis, about “comfort bubbles” when he accepts an invitation to personal space camp from the school principal. A fun family outdoor game of “space tag” requires all participants to run while holding a hula hoop as they chase each other. Instead of touching another player, you just bump their hoop with yours. Another children’s book, “Hands Off Harry” by Rosemary Wells, is a story about a kindergartener who keeps doing things that get him into trouble. The message in this book can teach a child that learning about personal space is sometimes a lot of work.

Three rules apply when trying to teach any new social skill to young children:  

  • Patience, patience, patience. Preschool children have a short attention span and may need to be reminded many times about the same thing.
  • Be consistent. If it is not okay to barge into the bathroom without knocking, the rule should apply to everyone in the family. If a rule changes, let the child know. A toddler may not be allowed to handle knives, but a preschooler who is responsible may be allowed to set the table and handle the silverware. Family rules can be flexible to allow for normal development. When caregivers are inconsistent children get confused.
  • Be positive. Catch a child respecting someone’s personal space and comment on it. “I see you asked permission of your brother before you entered his room. You are really learning about respecting personal space.”

It is impossible to be with preschool children in every social situation to help them learn about personal space. In “Beyond Behavior Management; the Six Life Skills Children Need,” author Jenna Bilmes shares examples of sentences that can be used to teach children to advocate for their own personal space when there is not an adult in close proximity:Don’t take that; I’m using it right now,” or “Move over; you’re sitting too close to me.” Practicing social scripts with children will prepare them in advance for a situation that might be too close for comfort.

Every adult can teach children about boundaries and personal space by modeling the behavior they’d like to see, discussion and interactive play. Children need to learn about personal space as they grow and develop. It is another important social skill for academic success. For more articles on child development, academic success and parenting, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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