"Stay strong, stay calm and activate your mask power!"

That's what the Kratt brothers, who save animals on PBS Kids' "Wild Kratts," tell children in a public service announcement. "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" also will pitch in with a singalong special.

Cartoon characters aren't the only ones helping kids get used to donning face masks. Local nurses and pediatricians are trying to guide Minnesota families, especially now that Minnesota's new mandate calls for everyone over age 5 to wear a mask indoors, unless they have a condition or disability that makes it difficult.

"It's itchy."

"It's uncomfortable."

"Why do I have to wear it?"

Those are just some of the complaints Dr. Gigi Chawla has heard from children.

But Chawla, the chief of general pediatrics at Children's Minnesota, said it's important to let children — and their parents — know that they are part of the solution to COVID-19.

"Wearing those masks anytime that you're around people is really, really useful in protecting others and having others protect you," she said. "It protects others from your respiratory droplets that you have every time you're speaking, talking, coughing, yelling or sneezing or any of those types of things. So by wearing a mask you are being as safe as you can for others, and having others doing that same thing for you helps keep you safe."

Chawla is quick to point out that children under age 2 should not wear masks, which are a strangulation hazard. And she knows that the very young aren't super spreaders. In fact, studies have shown that the greatest risk of transmission is from adults to young children, not between kids or kids to adults, she said. Even so, having kids wear masks is very important.

"If we're really making sure that adults are wearing masks, that is super-helpful. Adults, however, have a greater sense of how to socially distance," she said. "The challenge for kids is that, although they may be at slightly less risk of transmitting among themselves or transmitting to an adult, they don't have a sense necessarily of what 6 feet is. And that is really difficult for controlling any respiratory droplets."

At Parents in Community Action, a nonprofit that runs Head Start centers in Hennepin County, Nadia Higgins and other nurses have been collecting photos and videos of teachers doing fun things with masks on. They hope parents share those images with their children before they return to classrooms.

Higgins said that seeing positive images of people wearing masks is essential for very young children.

"The way that they understand their world is through the faces around them and that's how they feel safe. But when faces are covered — and we know that from Halloween — it's like the ground is shifting under their feet. So, we need to do what we can to help," she said.

The nurses are also sharing strategies with parents through their Facebook page and in weekly phone calls.

"One thing that has been really successful with kids is to say, 'We're going to be superheroes and we're going to put on our masks now,' " said Higgins.

"You can practice it at home and incorporate it into play. 'Who wears a mask? Superheroes wear a mask. What are you doing when you are wearing a mask? You're helping other people. You're keeping your bad germs to yourself.' "

Higgins also suggests letting kids put masks on their dolls or stuffed animals. And instead of nagging a young child to keep a mask on, she tells parents and teachers to try "developing a little code."

"If you see your child touching their mask, you could say, 'Wiggle, wiggle hands! Everyone wiggle hands,' " to help them keep their hands off their masks.

Stella Nyakundi, a nurse who also works with Parents in Community Action, advises parents to explain to children that we wear masks to keep others safe instead of warning that you could get sick without one.

"That would be scary," Nyakundi said. "We are explaining the rationale so they don't get scared."

Fit and fashion

So far, it hasn't been hard for Sandi Langowski, a mom of two from Minnesota City, Minn., to get her sons to wear masks. The boys, who are 13 and 7, wore them for a family outing to Duluth, and keep them on when they go in a store.

"We simply told them the mask will help keep them as well as others safer when we're in close contact," said Langowski.

Still, she isn't sure they are ready to wear a mask for an entire day.

"I am concerned about keeping the mask on during the school day and bus rides to and from school," she said. "We've only had the kids wearing the masks for very short periods of time, so a full day may be a challenge."

That's a challenge that kids can meet, according to Chawla.

"Can a child wear a mask for eight hours a day? Of course, the answer to that is yes," she said. "It doesn't restrict your breathing or anything like that. But anyone's — and especially kids' — ability to wear a mask for a prolonged period of time can be really challenged by the way it fits, how warm you are and the conditions that you're wearing the mask under."

That means getting the right size and fit.

"Kids and their little faces, their nose bridges aren't necessarily so prominent, so it can be hard to keep a mask on, and have it not slip down under their little noses," she said. "The broader the strap behind the ear, the more it disperses the pressure on the back of the ear and it's much more comfortable. A little more speaking room around the mouth can be helpful so that the whole thing isn't pressing on a kid's face."

How a mask looks can make a big difference, especially for older kids.

"As kids get to be a little bit older, 9, 10, 11, you can help it be part of their identity," Chawla said. "They can help design the mask, and have it be colorful, or rhinestone-studded. Whatever appeals to them. At that age, it gets to be really important to have an external persona."

For teens, an honest discussion about the "why" can happen, she said. "It's about a social responsibility," Chawla said, "to keep others healthy, and for others to keep you healthy."

Once kids are comfortable wearing a mask, parents have one more chore: remembering to wash those cloth masks every day.

Erica Pearson • 612-673-4726