Should we teach medicine in pre-school?

We prepare young children for life by teaching them skills from an early age – reading, writing, standing, walking, how to ingest and even how to egest. Some parents even create songs and dances around egestion.

There is even clapping and stickers when the bemused child finally realises tottering around in soiled undergarments is not a good look. Once they have a firmer grip on life, should we start teaching children how to stay alive – how young is too young?

I very nearly sent my daughter to a preschool that expected two year-olds to brush their teeth by themselves after snacks. Most two year-olds I know eat toothbrushes for breakfast, if left to their own devices. You’ve probably got more chances of getting them to brush their doll’s hair with it than their teeth. That said, we lived in America at the time, where dental hygiene was light years ahead of the toothpick brigade I have seen chiselling away at their gnashers on the bus here (I saw it once, that was enough).

But it got me thinking about what other medical ‘tricks’ we should start teaching at a young age. I’m not suggesting we have five year-olds self-medicating, candy in one cheek, Ritalin in the other. But the advent of Covid seems to have successfully trained a generation of Primary school children to actively ask for hand sanitiser.

Some of the cheeky whippersnappers my daughter, now eight years-old, floats about with, have the audacity to sit at my dinner table and question if I have used hand sanitizer while preparing their snack. These are the same children who walk around with slime in their pockets and would suck a skittle off somebody’s shoe! But nonetheless I admire their strides into the world of disease prevention. What else could they take off a burdened health system’s plate? Let’s be honest – they are going to lick that plate.

Perhaps they could be given some very basic first-aid training, maybe with a sing-song, “One-two, got a booboo? Three-four, don’t knock on my door. Five-six, apply something that sticks. Seven-eight, aren’t you great!”. Clearly someone already beat me to this ‘early medical education’ idea with the schoolyard classic: “Sticks and stones will break my bones.” We’re halfway there.

In the preschool my daughter ended up attending in the States (the one that didn’t make two year-olds brush their teeth – the hippies) they loved bringing people in to talk to the infants. Not just the local cop or librarian (no disrespect to law enforcement or cataloguing) but also dentists, doctors and nurses to name a few. On the speaker days, my daughter would come home from school awash with Scooby Doo band aids and fantastically fandangled flossing apparatus.

We interrupted her American schooling to bring her back to Ireland, where the only visitor to her class this year was the local priest – and she didn’t even come home with a crucifix key-ring! We’ll never know how far the Americans were going to go, do they learn a little CPR in Elementary school?

Maybe by Junior High they can handle some basic operations? By High School you’re nobody unless you’ve got a whipple under your belt!

I believe public health awareness and lessons in the spread of infection are probably incorporated within the ethos of most school settings these days. Children have an admirable and growing social conscience and are acutely environmentally aware. Schools are very proud, and even fly flags to symbolize their greenness. But let’s take self reliance a step further and teach first aid in schools. In the UK from 2020 all state funded schools are required to teach First Aid as part of health education. This is unfortunately not compulsory in Ireland, yet.

My eight year-old has recently learned an introduction to First Aid through her Scout group. This seems to mostly involve the recovery position which she desperately wanted a chance to demonstrate. I think she was secretly hoping I would collapse on our walk home and she could throw her new skills into action.

Part of me believes in my child’s ability to do it correctly, and part of me fears she’ll rest me face down in a puddle, take out my phone to ring an ambulance, accidently open Netflix and end up watching the end of DC Super Hero Girls, as I slowly suffocate in rain water. Nonetheless, I would prefer she try to save me with a modicum of knowledge than helplessly watch me collapse and die. Hopefully neither will happen!

On the other hand, we shouldn’t put pressure on children to look after themselves, their family, friends, or strangers in difficulty. As adults we are their caretakers, and we should look after them. We should encourage them to come to us with their problems, both physical and emotional.

These fundamentals are not up for change, but equipping them with some very basic knowledge in case they are the only other human present in a medical situation is a positive step, such as – lessons on how to contact emergency services, how to handle a small cut, responses to choking, and the famous recovery position (Step 1, check for puddles).

I don’t see a downside, aside from potential death, destruction, manslaughter, irrevocable trauma, and nuisance 999 calls – what have we got to lose! If my local Primary school set up a doctor’s surgery run by five year-olds would I go? Absolutely, could you imagine the size of the spoons-full-of-sugar they’d dole out?

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