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Explaining Contagious Viruses by Illustrating Exponential Growth

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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused chaos, panic, and fear for families around the world.

Personally, our world has been completely turned upside down. My husband is working from home, my stepdaughter is homeschooling, and we’ve shut down our brick-and-mortar store for the foreseeable future.

My stepdaughter is resilient (she is a child of divorce after all!), but she’s still confused. What in the world is going on?

We’ve done our best to explain the pandemic, and we’ve found a few things that work. First, we focused on COVID-19, viruses, and germs in our science lessons.

She still didn’t totally understand how it spreads so quickly, so I sought an example of exponential growth to help her understand.

Many of the examples online were meant for teaching older kids on graphic calculators, but that’s not what I was after. After a little bit of brainstorming, I remembered an example from my childhood that stuck with me all of these years later.

The “Exponential Allowance” Example

I distinctly remember one time growing up when my stepmom discussed my allowance with me.

She asked me how much I got paid from my mom for doing chores at her home, and then she proposed an alternative solution.

Here’s what she said to me,

“Instead of getting a flat rate pay ($5 per week), what if you asked your mom to start your allowance at one penny and then double it each week?”

“one penny?? No way! Even once that’s doubled, it’s still way less than $5 each week!”

“You have to think past the one penny… Play it out a little bit farther.”

As opposed to $260 per year with a standard $5 per week allowance, here’s what you’d make each week with exponential growth.

If you can hold out until week 10, that’s when you’ll really start to see the benefit of your patience! And if you can wait until week 21 – wow!

How does this apply to real life?

Unsurprisingly, most parents won’t opt for the “begin with a penny and double each week” method of paying allowance.

But this is still a really valuable exercise in explaining exponential growth to little ones who love to see how quickly that weekly allowance become massive numbers.

Applying it to COVID-19 and an Individual’s Impact

If we think about the fact that COVID-19 can be easily transmitted to others, it’s entirely possible that for every single infected person, there’s at least one other they’ve (knowingly or unknowingly) transmitted the disease to.

Using the same logic as our allowance example, you can see how if one person were to infect one other, how quickly that becomes a very serious issue.

After just 3 weeks, that one person has indirectly infected another 10,000+ people! And that’s IF there’s only 1 person infected by each infected person.

Pretty crazy, right?

I found this GIF on Facebook (and discovered it’s from https://thespinoff.co.nz) and thought it was SUPER helpful to explain the importance of social distancing.

I think this is another great visual for littles who don’t know why they can’t go to the park, see their friends, or may not be transitioning custody right now.

I had my stepdaughter use a calculator and multiply by 2 as we went through the days, “If one person had Coronavirus and didn’t realize it and accidentally infected one person on Day 1, how many people would have Coronavirus on Day 2? And if on Day 2, both of those people accidentally infected one other person, how many people would have Coronavirus on Day 3?” And so on. She kept multiplying by 2 with every day that passed.

With each day that passed, she began to understand why we were social distancing. That exponential growth is terrifying when you’re talking about people getting sick.

It’s important that we recognize this is a big, scary change for our children right now, and we work to assuage those fears and let them know that even though things are different, they’re still so loved and still protected by their parents.

P.S. Looking for activities and experiments to explain germs and viruses to kids? We’ve got you covered!

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