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Staying Healthy: Healthy Environments

It is important that staff members provide a clean and healthy environment for children for children of all ages to learn and grow. This lesson will provide information about how you can teach, model, and observe general hygiene practices in child development and school-age programs.

  • Distinguish between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting and ensure staff members can do the same.
  • Provide ongoing training on health and cleanliness guidelines and universal health precautions.
  • Model, observe, and provide feedback on health practices.



It is important that staff members know the procedures for keeping their environments clean and healthy. The first step is making sure staff members understand their responsibilities. There are many ways to help them understand their responsibilities, but perhaps the most important is to provide training on your program's requirements for cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting surfaces, toys, and learning materials.

Each new staff member will complete the Virtual Lab School Healthy Environments Course. There are courses specifically for Infant and Toddler, Preschool, and School-Age staff members.  There is also a track for family child care providers. All staff members or family child care providers will be presented with activities designed to help them think about the importance of general hygiene practices. Review these activities with each new staff member. Suggested responses are provided for most activities. These can help you monitor the staff member's understanding of the content. If you think a staff member is struggling with hygiene practices, suggest they review certain content.

It is also important for you to know and communicate key messages to staff members. To provide a safe and healthy environment for children and youth in child development and school-age programs, you must make sure that staff members understand the difference between terms such as cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting. This will help them know when to use products designed for each purpose.

Distinguishing Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting

  1. Cleaning means to remove dirt or debris from a surface and sometimes involves scrubbing or friction in order to remove the debris. For example, you spray a table with a mix of water and detergent to remove food products and debris after a meal.
  2. Sanitizing means to reduce germs on a surface. When you sanitize a surface, it meets most health regulations. Sanitizing products usually are not effective unless the surface has been cleaned first. After cleaning the table with detergent and water, you spray an approved mix of water and bleach to sanitize the table and kill germs.
  3. Disinfecting means to destroy most germs on a surface. Disinfecting a surface is often necessary when it has made contact with body fluids. Disinfecting usually requires a stronger bleach-water mixture. Changing tables, sinks, toilets, and countertops should be disinfected.

You can use the bingo game in the Apply section as a different way to provide booster training to staff members after they have completed their own Virtual Lab School lessons on Healthy Environments.

You should also provide information to staff about when and how often to clean surfaces and materials. A sample schedule is provided in the Apply section. Remember that local service policies will also dictate your cleaning schedule, so you may need to make adaptations for your setting.


Although you are not a day-to-day member of the classroom team, you and management staff play an important role in keeping children and youth healthy. For new staff members, it is important that you:

  1. Provide any products your program uses to clean, sanitize, or disinfect. You must teach staff members where cleaning supplies are located, how to mix solutions, when to use them, and how to use them. All supplies should be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make sure they are safe.
  2. Show staff members how cleaning supplies are stored in your program. For example, cleaning materials should be stored in clearly marked containers. They must be secured and inaccessible to children, including school-age children.
  3. Teach staff members how to follow ratios when creating cleaning, sanitizing, or disinfecting solutions. Teach staff when fresh solutions need to be made. Make sure fresh solutions are prepared each day and labeled with the date. Talk with staff about roles and responsibilities in the program: who makes the solution each day?
  4. You may also need to provide staff members with calendars and tools to help them keep their environments healthy. Local service policies will dictate your cleaning schedules. For infant and toddler classrooms, it is especially important to provide boxes or bins for "soiled toys." For all other settings, it may be helpful to provide checklists or calendars. These tools can help staff remember when various surfaces were last cleaned.


When you spend time in a classroom or program, observe how the staff members maintain the cleanliness of the environment. You can use a variety of tools to help you. Most environmental rating scales include guidelines for health and sanitation practices. You can also use the Healthy Environments Best Practices Checklist in the Apply section of this lesson to help you focus on important health practices in your classrooms and program areas.

The most important thing you can do is observe staff members and talk with them about the health and safety of their environments. It is important for you to know each staff member's individual strengths and challenges. Remember, you may also need to support consistency across staff members who work in the same classroom across different shifts.

Case Example: Healthy Environments

In this lesson you will follow a case example that focuses on how a coach or trainer could help staff members ensure environments are healthy for children. In group care settings, like child development programs and school-age programs, it is imperative that staff members take the steps necessary to prevent the spread of disease. This case example will provide examples of ways you can plan, observe, and provide feedback to staff members about cleaning practices that promote health.

Healthy Environments: Case Example 1

Think about how you might promote healthy environments for all children.

Case Example Step 1: Make a Plan

Throughout these videos, you likely observed some subtle and consistent concerns related to health. These can become targets for action planning. Making a plan is an important way to work towards improvement. Here is an example action plan for the infant classroom you saw in the video:

Goal: To maintain a healthy environment by consistently responding when children mouth toys and by providing toys that can be easily cleaned and sanitized.

Action Steps:

  1. By next week (specific date), coach or trainer will purchase or find a bin that can be used to store soiled or dirty toys.
  2. Teacher will clearly label the bin "Toys for Cleaning" and place the bin near the sink in the classroom.
  3. Coach or trainer and teachers will review materials in classroom to make sure an adequate supply of developmentally appropriate, chewable toys are available for exploration (i.e., duplicates of favorites, range of textures, etc.).
  4. Teachers will remain in arms' reach of infants during floor time. When a child puts a soiled toy down, the teacher will place the toy in the bin for cleaning.
  5. Teacher and coach or trainer will communicate with kitchen staff and schedule a regular time to put soiled toys in the dishwasher.
  6. If a child mouths a toy that cannot be machine washed, the teacher will clean it and allow it to air dry before it is put back into the play area.

Case Example Step 2: Provide Feedback

After observing in a classroom, it is important to provide feedback about what you saw. Here is a conversation that a coach or trainer might have had with the infant team:

Coach or trainer: "Natalie is really getting big and starting to explore. I noticed she seems to be teething. Have you noticed any changes?"

Teacher: "Yeah, she's cutting two teeth right now and wants to put everything in her mouth. She's also drooling everywhere. It's hard to keep up with her!"

Coach or trainer: "I bet it is. We both know how quickly germs can spread between the babies, though, so let's think of some ways we can help keep you and the babies healthy. I'm worried that the board book might be hard to clean. What do you think about rotating in some sturdier books for a little while?"

Case Example Step 3: Provide Resources

As a coach or trainer, it is important to help staff members feel supported and to help them find the resources they need to do their jobs. In the case example, the coach or trainer identified several resources the team might need: a bin for dirty toys, access to the dishwasher, additional books appropriate for mouthing. A coach or trainer can help the teaching team locate these materials or resources. The coach or trainer can also help the team know who to talk to in the building about using the dishwasher, placing a supply order, or accessing stored toys.

Additional Examples

Now let's take some time to watch additional examples of ways staff members keep environments clean. These examples come from infant and toddler, preschool, and school-age settings. After you watch the video, read what a coach or trainer might observe, say, and do in each scenario.

Case Example 2

Watch these examples and consider strategies for promoting healthy environments across different age groups.

Promoting Healthy Environments: Scenarios



You saw:

  • Infant diapering area has spray bottles within reach.
  • Infant grabs at bottles during change.
  • Staff member notices and quickly moves the cleaning supplies.

You Say

What you might say:

  • "You were very responsive today when you noticed Tabitha reaching for the spray bottles near the diaper table."
  • "It's important to keep cleaning supplies close and where you will remember to use them, but we have to balance that with safety. Let's review the diaper area prep procedures…"
  • "I noticed the spray bottles were still down today when you brought Tabitha over to the changing table. Why do you think that happened?"

You Do

What you might do:

  • Do a safety check to make sure the storage spot for cleaning supplies is functional (i.e., shelf is not broken).
  • Continue to monitor and observe across shifts within the classroom.
  • Open a dialogue to see if there are any communication breakdowns about responsibilities and cleaning tasks.


You saw:

  • A child had an accident on the playground.
  • One staff member blocked the area.
  • Another staff member brought cleaning supplies and took appropriate actions to clean and disinfect the area.

You Say

What you might say:

  • "I noticed you two working as a team on the playground today. Tell me about what happened with the accident…"
  • "We often forget that the playground needs to be cleaned, too. You modeled healthy habits today when you disinfected the sand…"

You Do

What you might do:

  • Brainstorm with staff about strengths and weaknesses of current communication system when problems occur on playground; make sure staff feel it is responsive and they can get help quickly.


You saw:

  • School-age program during transition.
  • Several boys are involved in helping clean the tables.
  • Staff member monitors and provides directions.
  • Staff member controls the bleach solution.

You Say

What you might say:

  • "You are promoting independence and responsibility by involving the children in cleaning their own tables."

You Do

What you might do:

  • Brainstorm other ways children could take responsibility for cleaning tasks.
  • Work with the maintenance staff to identify trouble-areas for cleanliness (i.e., perhaps there is always a mess left in the art area) and target those for brainstorming solutions with staff.

Staff members should understand and follow procedures for maintaining healthy environments for children all day, every day. Use the Healthy Environments Best Practices Checklist in the Apply section to observe in the classroom, and focus with the staff member on both practices where the staff is strong, and areas where best practices need support. Discuss what you see with each staff member or teaching team. Store it in the employee’s training file as evidence of their progress. Observe, provide feedback, and offer resources as needed throughout the employee’s career. Needs will change, but your role will always serve a critical mission. 

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Training & Curriculum Specialist Healthy Environments Course Guide

To support the professional development of the direct care staff members or family child care providers you oversee, you can access their corresponding Course Guides:


New staff members sometimes forget the guidelines for maintaining a clean and healthy environment. Use the Addressing Problems activity to read these scenarios and describe how you would respond. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.


There are many ways you can help staff members learn important hygiene practices in your program. Here you will find a bingo game that you could use if you needed to offer a small group booster session or staff meeting about cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting learning spaces. To use the Cleaning Bingo activity, provide each staff member with a bingo board and a pencil. Find the Facilitator’s Guide at the end of the Cleaning Bingo activity. Randomly read items from the left side of the list. Place a check mark beside the item when you read it. To finish the game, you may need to read some items more than once. When you read an item, ask the staff members to write the name of the item in a bingo square that matches the cleaning procedure. The first person to get five correct in a row wins (as in bingo, the row can go up, down, across, or diagonally).

The Healthy Environments Best Practices Checklist is a brief tool that can be used to support continued observation of best practices among staff that have completed the Healthy Environments course but may need additional support and feedback on their practice of promoting a healthy classroom or program environment. This checklist provides an easy way to follow up on goals set around this topic. This checklist can also be used by Training & Curriculum specialists and Program managers to provide feedback to staff members that do not provide direct care to children in the program.

The Guide to Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting (from Caring for Our Children) provides a schedule for cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting a variety of surfaces. Use this as a resource to help communicate environmental policies to staff members.


To remove dirt and debris from a surface or object
To destroy or remove most germs from a surface
To reduce the germs on a surface or object so it meets health guidelines


Keisha is a new staff member. She is having a hard time remembering to mix fresh cleaning solution every morning. What should you do?
The new team in the infant-toddler classroom is dealing with a contagious illness. What is one suggestion you might make to the team?
The school-age staff members roll their eyes at you when you talk about the importance of cleanliness. One staff member tells you, “These kids aren’t babies. They go to dirty schools and dirty playgrounds and ride dirty busses. Their school lunch tables aren’t disinfected after each student sits there … they wipe it down with a dirty rag like a restaurant! It’s crazy the way you make us clean.” What do you say?
References & Resources

American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. (2015). Caring for Our Children: National health and safety performance standards; Guidelines for early care and education programs, 3rd ed. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; Washington, DC: American Public Health Association. Also available at

Aronson, S. S., Bradley, S., Louchheim, S., & Mancuso, D. (2002). Model Child Care Health Policies, 4th Ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Aronson, S. S., & Spahr, P. M. (Eds., 2002). Healthy Young Children: A Manual for Programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Keeping Healthy: Families, Teachers, and Children. (2007). [Brochure]. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

North Carolina Child Care Health and Safety Resource Center, (May 2009). Information available by contacting 800-367-2229.

Ritchie, S. & Willer B. (2008). Health: A Guide to the NAEYC Early Childhood Program Standard and Related Accreditation Criteria. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.