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A: Astronauts, play and COVID testing

Play and COVID-19 testing

More and more children are now experiencing COVID-19 testing first-hand, but the need for testing can be hard for young children to understand. In our (pre-pandemic) work, we used play to help us explain and carry out the collection of DNA mouth swabs with hundreds of 3- and 4-year-olds. In this blog, I’m going to talk you through the space story we used, but you can try coming up with your own story that fits with your child’s favourite games or toys.

You can also check out the resources linked below for more information.

Meet Rocco and Luna!

Using play to explain and carry out COVID-19 testing might help to reduce the uncertainty or worry some children may have around the procedure. When we were collecting mouth swabs, we used astronaut hand puppets (Rocco and Luna), a home-made rocket gauge (a print-out of a fuel tank with a spinning arrow on a split pin), and some space stickers to help us explain the procedure to the children.

“Rocco and Luna are two astronauts who are trying to get back to space – but their rocket is all out of fuel! Did you know that boys and girls have rocket fuel in their mouths? Do you think we can help Rocco and Luna by giving them some of your rocket fuel?”

A playful story can help children make sense of unfamiliar equipment and techniques. In our story, simply by changing ‘swabs’ to ‘magic sticks’ and a ‘test tube’ to a ‘fuel tank’, the children were suddenly focused on their Mars mission rather than the medical-like equipment.

“We can fill up these magic sticks with your rocket fuel, add your fuel to Rocco’s fuel tank, and see if you’ve given him enough to get all the way back to space!”

Top tips for swab collection

Through taking hundreds of swabs, I found lots of different ways to engage the children and I’ve written some of my top tips here. Above all though, what reassured the kids the most was having their closest grown-ups nearby – and they especially loved it when their families got involved in the play too!

  • Try some practice runs. Before taking the sample, you could use household cotton buds to give your child the chance to ‘feel’ the swab and even get some practice fuel from brothers, sisters, or grown-ups. This can take away the ‘unknown’ and allow children to see what’s involved.
  • Remind your child of their important role. Children might suggest that grown-ups give the sample instead, but you can explain that it’s only their special rocket fuel that matches up to Rocco’s rocket.
  • Stay calm and confident. As you’re collecting the sample, try counting slowly and calmly to your child. Children will be looking to you to know how to respond in this unfamiliar situation so even if you’re not feeling particularly confident on the inside, a calm approach can help to reassure your child.
  • It’s all a bit tickly and strange. While collecting the swab, it’s okay to acknowledge that it might feel tickly or uncomfortable. It can sometimes feel tempting to brush away negative emotions by saying “you’re fine” or “it’s not that bad” but this might mean your child doesn’t feel listened to. Instead, you can acknowledge how they’re feeling, let them know they’re doing a great job, and remind them how important collecting their sample is.
  • Nearly there! As the COVID swab is a two-step process (mouth and nose), let your child know after swabbing their mouth that you’re nearly done but Rocco needs just a little more. During collection, we moved Rocco along his fuel tank to show how close he was to blast off.
  • Keep the play going! Talk about what you think Rocco will get up to in space as you’re collecting the sample – this can help distract your child. I’d often talk about what planets I thought Rocco might visit, what he would eat on the journey (mostly moon cheese sandwiches!), and what we’d need to pack for him before he left.
  • Celebrate your child’s hard work and bravery! After collection, the children became Chief Rocket Launchers and Rocco often did a few laps of the house at blast off. I found that Rocco and Luna used to leave behind space stickers as a thank you for the child’s hard work.


Your play may look a little different dependent on your child’s age, understanding, and interests. Some children might prefer to play scientists or hospitals, while others might like to give a dragon their fire back or unicorns some flying fuel.

This is an unfamiliar procedure so while making home-testing playful can work well for lot of children, some children may still be reluctant to complete the test. All you can do is try your best to put your child most at ease.


Watch our informational video for more top tips on how to introduce play into your COVID-19 testing routine.