Does your child understand personal space? Do their friends? Young children can sometimes be unaware of what personal space is, and why it’s important for interacting with others. We know we need to teach children about personal space if we see them invading others’ personal space, or showing signs of discomfort or stress when their space is invaded.
When we talk to kids about personal space, using a metaphor can help them understand why we need it. For instance, when we see cars on the highway, they are all moving together and yet they never come close enough to touch each other. They each give each other enough space so everyone feels safe. People are the same way!
Our Education Specialist, Julianne Bigler, gives some examples of games and props anyone can use to illustrate personal space in an engaging way for kids.
Provide a concrete representation
Use a carpet square, mat, or hula hoop to represent a child’s personal space. Tell them to imagine there is a bubble surrounding their space that only they can be inside. Children can explore the bounds of their space in many different ways. Tell the child to imagine they have a paintbrush in their hand and they are going to paint the inside of their bubble. When they get to “paint” their bubble how they want, this gives them a sense of ownership around it, making them more likely to preserve it.
Bring awareness to their body
While inside their personal bubble, have children bring awareness to their bodies by acting out movements that explore high, medium, and low, as well as what their body can do inside their bubble. They can show how high and low they can get, how far their arms reach and legs stretch while remaining inside their bubble. Children can pretend they are plucking a star from the sky, playing a board game, or picking a flower. The song “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” is a perfect song for this activity. Bring as much fun into this as possible! The more differentiated motor skills they practice, the more control they begin to gain over their body.
Play personal space games
“Shrinking Room” is a game that requires children to adjust their bodies to accommodate for personal space in a changing environment. Children hold hoops and must be careful not to touch anyone else’s hoops while playing. The adult acts as a moveable wall with their arms out to the side. When they take a step forward, there is less space available, and the children must move so that they and their neighbors have enough space.
A modified “Red Light, Green Light” can also teach personal space. Have one child who will demonstrate their need for personal space stand at one end of the room, and the others stand at the opposite end. One child advances (not running) toward the one who is “it”. The child who is “it” will hold up their hand in a “stop” signal when the child walking toward them gets close enough. To gauge the appropriate amount of space, use a carpet mat, or establish the “arm’s length away” rule.
Some children may struggle more than others with personal space due to vestibular processing difficulties. The vestibular system helps our bodies detect and interpret movement. Children with a vestibular dysfunction struggle with motor skills and can present as clumsy. These children tend to invade others’ personal space without realizing the discomfort it causes other people. Simply telling a child with these difficulties what they “should” do to respect this space is not effective. Presenting a physical model for them develops the vestibular awareness they need. The following exercise can bring awareness to personal space by experiencing their own space being invaded.
While the child stands inside a small hoop they are holding, have someone else come inside their hoop. Note how the child responds. Do they back up, shy away, or in other ways establish personal space? This exercise gives them a good metric of the space to give others. If they are uncomfortable when their space is invaded, this is a perfect time to help them advocate for themselves by requesting space or backing away.
Using a social story is a tool many children find helpful. A personal story should outline what personal space is, what good personal space looks like, social cues for a child to look for to determine whether or not they are personal space invaders, and what to do when they need personal space.
One aspect these activities do not address when first teaching personal space, is that our bubbles fluctuate. After a child has mastered their space with concrete objects, teach them how our abstract bubbles shrink and expand depending on who we’re with. Talk with your child or student about the differences in how close we get with our family, friends, acquaintances, and community members. Role playing can make this a fun to practice while in a safe space. When implementing this task, take turns playing different people the child may encounter any given day.
This visual from Social Skilled Kids illustrates how personal space changes depending on who we are with. This is a helpful visual to hang in a classroom for children to reference when they need.
Watch Julianne’s talk on personal space here!