If you have a school-aged child, there is a good chance your child has already read the book “Personal Space Camp” by Julia Cook. Stories are a wonderful way to educate children about behaviors, character traits, and skills we would like them to learn. Children often need the addition of hands-on or experiential activities to solidify the message the book communicates. To help address the topic of personal space I have compiled several activities that present the same message in diverse ways. The best foundation for teaching personal space is to start with a story like the one by Julia Cook. Reading is also an activity that helps calm children down and can assist them in regaining self-regulation. Many of my activities will connect to the story of the “Personal Space Camp” book as well.
First, I start with an activity that develops the concept of space. Before you get started you will need to select a filler item. Typically, I use rice since you can buy it in larger quantities at the dollar store at a lower cost. You could also use beads, beans, cheerios, poly beads (stuffed animal filling), poms, or whatever inexpensive item comes to mind. If you want inexpensive yet creative options just browse the dollar store and see what catches your eye.
Next, I select a variety of containers that are the same and different. Initially, I prefer to use nesting dolls. You can purchase an unpainted set rather inexpensively and after you complete the activity you can let your child(ren) pick one that represents them and decorate it. Wait until the end of the activity to decorate them though. Also look for other items that are the same and different such as boxes. I usually use some unpainted wooden boxes I picked up at a craft store though you could likely find less expensive options if you shopped around. I like to use unmarked items to drive the point home about personal space without distractions. If the items look the same on the outside the size characteristic is isolated. Full attention is on the topic you are addressing, which is often difficult for kids with personal space struggles.
After I have selected my filler objects, I begin by asking the child(ren) to describe what they notice about the nesting dolls. Be okay with the silence and give them a few minutes to pick them up and observe them. If they do not draw the conclusion themselves, I point out that the dolls all have the same shape and basically look the same on the outside. I point out that we all have bodies that basically look the same too. We all have one head, two arms, too legs, a torso, etc. If you have children with medical situations where this is not true you will probably want to avoid this part of the exercise. Next, I ask them to guess how much rice they think each nesting doll will hold. Only fill the bottom half of the nesting doll with rice. Then, I have them look at the nesting dolls filled with rice and ask them to tell me which they think holds more. If you have several cups the same size, then pour the rice from each doll into a corresponding cup. It is best if the cup is transparent though it does not have to be the case for this activity to be successful. Ask them to mark the rice level on the outside if the cup if not transparent. Do not separate the doll from its rice cup. Talk with your child about how each of the dolls takes up a different amount of space. Each of us needs a certain amount of space for our bodies. We also need a certain amount of space for our bodies to be comfortable and everyone’s need for personal space is different just like some people like fruit snacks but others like chips. Connecting personal space to something more tangible helps bring grounding to this complex topic.
Repeat most of the activity with the nesting dolls with other containers, such as the boxes mentioned above. Get creative with your containers if you can and your child is grasping the concept. The goal is to increase the complexity of the teaching with each container exercise if you can. If your child gains a significant understanding of this concept then slowly move toward items that are not identical in anyway and talk about the difference in the space these items take up.
The second activity requires hula hoops. You can purchase two sizes of hula hoops at the dollar store. If you have multiple children or can invite friends over, this activity works best. Have one child select a hula hoop, then ask them how it feels to be in the hula hoop. Add additional children to the hula hoop and continue to ask how it feels to be in the hula hoop. Stop once you have reached the maximum capacity of the hula hoop. Ask the children to walk around. Repeat with the second hula hoop. Talk about how you can fit fewer people into the smaller hula hoop before it becomes uncomfortable. This is where the lesson can get a little confusing depending on the age of your child. Talk with the children about how people with a smaller personal space bubble can fit more people into their personal space before becoming uncomfortable, but those with a larger personal space become uncomfortable with fewer people in their personal space. The fact that the hula hoops are the opposite size to the concept you are teaching is what can make the lesson a bit confusing for younger children. Skip this if your child is not ready. Instead, talk with younger children about being cramped and uncomfortable when too many people are close to you and that how many people make someone uncomfortable is different. They should always ask someone if they are uncomfortable.
You can also talk about some of the behaviors they might see if someone’s personal space bubble has been invaded: cranky, trying to play by themselves, not wanting to share, etc. I also have the kids sit in the hula hoops and point out how the children often do not fit in the smaller hula hoop and it becomes uncomfortable to try to fold themselves into it. Additionally, you can address how easy it is to invade someone else’s personal when they do not fit into the smaller hoop.
The third activity is to blow bubbles. Teaching self-regulation, an important skill for successfully navigating personal space, is often taught through activities that require step-by-step instructions. Step-by-step directions naturally require self-regulation and the incentive is having fun. That said, I typically have children make the bubbles we are going to use and find several random household items to blow bubbles with, such as cutting off the end of a water bottle, a kitchen funnel, straws of varying sizes (make sure they are old enough they will not drink the soap!), small paper cups with a hole in the bottom, etc. The sky is the limit! Blow bubbles and ask your child to notice the varied sizes of the bubbles. Ask them to think about how much space each bubble takes up. Explain that the bigger the bubble, the more space it represents a person needs between themselves and their friends unless they ask and receive permission to enter their space. Then, blow a bubble for each kid and ask them to tell you to stop when the bubble represents their personal space. Make sure they understand that the larger the bubble the fewer people they want to be close to them. If you want to get fancy you could add a little food coloring to the bubble mix. I use the bubble mix recipe from the 365 Days of Science book by Usborne though I am sure you could search for one online. Homemade bubbles work better for this activity due to the consistency of the bubbles.
Fourth, I blow up balloons. Ask each kid to blow up their balloon until it represents their personal space, just like the bubble activity. Inevitably there is one child who claims they do not care how close people get to them. Balloons are a wonderful way to illustrate that everyone has a personal space bubble even if it is very small. Show the children an empty, never been filled balloon. Talk to them about the importance of breathing and how important it is for us to have air in our lungs. Ask them what happens if we do not have air in our lungs, then talk about how we cannot stay alive without at least some air. We suffocate without air. Personal space is just like having air in our lungs. Without at least a small amount of personal space we are smothered or suffocated. Even if it is only a little bit of personal space, we need some space to be comfortable and stay healthy. This illustration combats ideas that not having personal space means you are stronger and promotes healthy self-care during formative years. The earlier we learn healthy self-care the more natural it will be to practice self-care throughout our lives.
Fifth, I have book that includes a copy of an empty fish bowl. I am sure you could find a fish bowl template on Pinterest to make this activity work. Each child needs two fish bowls. For fish, you can use goldfish crackers or Swedish fish. You could also use whatever you have on hand, like raisins or skittles. Count out 20 fish. Ask the child to put one fish in one of the bowls and all the other fish in the other bowl. Depending on the age of your child, it is also important to emphasis they may not each the fish until you tell them it is okay. Ask them which fish bowl is the most comfortable. Ask the child to create a bowl that represents what makes them feel comfortable. How many fish are in their bowl? What happens if you take a fish out of the bowl? What happens if you add one more fish than what the child states is comfortable? What happens if there are no other fish in their bowl?
After all these activities, I ask the kids to make a t-shirt logo or placemat that helps other people understand their personal space.