3 Strategies for Teaching Kids About Personal Space

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Image via Katie Hurley

Little kids spend a lot of time cuddling, hugging, kissing, and sitting on laps. They love to smother their parents and siblings with love, and they enjoy being in close proximity to others–sometimes even when those “others” are attempting to do personal things, like taking a shower!

But then they get a little older, and suddenly the rules change.

Not all kids like to be hugged and touched by other kids, and not all teachers give hugs at the end of the day. And then there are strangers to think about.

As kids grow, they have to learn about personal space. This can be a confusing concept for kids who are accustomed to showing a lot of affection and holding hands at all times. They need guidance in order to understand what it means to maintain appropriate physical boundaries.

3 Strategies for Teaching Kids About Personal Space:

Identify safe spaces

It's difficult to explain the concept of personal space when kids feel like they don't have any space of their own. As parents, we constantly encourage young children to share. From toys to books and even clothes, we want kids to learn the art of generosity. But how often do we stop and consider providing a little personal space?

Even little ones need their own place to keep their favorite things. Whether it's a toy box, a closet, or even just a few bins to keep their own toys, they need to know that their belongings are safe from siblings when in that space.

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Kids also need to know that they have a right to privacy. As kids grow, it helps to have a closed-door policy when using the bathroom or getting dressed. This helps young children understand the importance of personal boundaries and teaches them to respect those boundaries for others.

Use visual cues

Talking is one thing, but if you want young children to really internalize these boundaries, it helps to provide visuals. Visual cues stay with children long after the lesson is over. Visual cues help kids make sense of the world around them.

For toddlers and preschoolers, stretching their arms out wide and looking from side to side is a great way to show them how much space they should give friends when walking or playing. While some kids don't mind sitting close, others are bothered by touch.

Hula hoops make another great lesson in personal space. When you stand inside a hula hoop and hold it up, it provides the perfect example of an appropriate amount of space to give others. Give a group of kids hula hoops and ask them to play hula hoop bumper cars–they will quickly learn how much space they need to allow!

Use pictures

Little kids love to read, and picture books provide opportunities to discuss social skills. Slow down when you read to your child. Look at the pictures and talk about space between the people, animals, or cars in the story. Ask your child to identify appropriate and inappropriate personal boundaries in the story. Talk about how the characters might feel if someone is too close and what they can do to allow for more space.

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Have your children struggled with understanding personal space?

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3 Strategies for Teaching Kids About Personal Space

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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3 comments

  1. Heidi says:

    “Hi, as a preschool educator, I appreciate that you are tackling a learning lesson as tricky as personal space. After reading your article, there are a couple things I thought I would add. With the diverse culture we live in, many of my students come from varying backgrounds, and personal space looks different in each family and each culture! I think, as a parent or educator we have to keep this in mind. One thing I didn’t see in this post that I think is very important to helping children promote personal space (since we all like a different amount) is teaching them to use their words! Model things like, “your face is very close to my face, can you back up please?” This helps demonstrate that just because they are comfortable someone else might not be, AND it re-enforces that it is absolutely okay to ask for space.
    The second thing that I thought might be helpful to add is that teaching children to identify body language and then look for body language will help them recognize if they feel comfortable in a situation and do others seem comfortable. I loved your tips on visual cues and pictures. There are even some great books like, “Hands Off, Harry” that can help facilitate discussions about why personal space might be important.”

  2. I like the fact the we have kids area in the upstairs Its their domain and they must keep it picked up to maintain responsibility but face it what kids do you know that honestly keep all their toys picked up. My girls love to pile their beds with toys and then try and sleep with them. So I’m always looking for a strategy for them to keep toys picked up.

  3. mommy nhoj says:

    This is much an issue now since she’s just a 10 month old baby. But I let her play on her own while watching quietly. When reading books, I let give cues to turn the page or move to another story book. 🙂 these are helpful tips, thanks!

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