Education professor designs kid-friendly face masks

Stephanie Koons
May 07, 2020

How does a parent get his or her child to wear a protective mask during the COVID-19 pandemic? An education professor at Penn State is utilizing her understanding of child psychology — as well as her sewing skills — to help protect children in her community by appealing to their imaginations.

Steven Martinez

Steven Martinez, stepson of Taylor Douglas, a doctoral candidate in school psychology in the College of Education, proudly wears the snake mask that Professor Shirley Woika designed. The snake face has been the most popular choice among the boys that Woika has created masks for.

IMAGE: Penn State

“Masks are hard to come by, and child-sized versions are even harder to come by,” said Shirley Woika, professor of education (school psychology) in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education (EPCSE). “Finding a mask that a young child will actually wear was impossible for me, so I made my own.”

Shirley Woika

Shirley Woika

IMAGE: Provided

Woika, who is a licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist, has been making cloth face masks in a variety of styles since the state began requiring them to be worn in public last month. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) and that recommendation extends to children over age 2. To date, she has made and donated around 50 masks and tries to make a few every day.

“I started by making masks for my immediate family and then I started making them for my Penn State family,” said Woika, a mother of five children. “I have been working through the school psychology graduate students in the area who have not been able to secure masks.”

While designing and making masks for adults is a relatively simple task, Woika said, countering the resistance of a toddler turned out to be rather challenging. Not only do young children dislike wearing anything that impedes their breathing, it is “a little scary to see people with masks on.” Her 2-year-old grandson, who lives in Pittsburgh and sometimes needs to go out for routine things like doctor’s appointments, was no exception in his aversion to face coverings.

“Knowing what I know about children and child development, I thought, ‘Why would a child want to wear a mask?’”

As Easter approached in April, inspiration struck Woika when she “got the idea to put a bunny face on the mask.” 

Darius Woika

Darius Woika, grandson of Professor of Education Shirley Woika, sports the bunny mask that his grandmother designed for him.

IMAGE: Penn State

“When he saw himself in the mirror and on the (screen) when he was Skyping with me, he actually liked wearing the mask,” she said.

“Why do kids wear masks? So that they can pretend that they’re something else. So when he found that he could do that, he finally got on board.”

Since then, Woika, aided by her daughter, Savanna (who received her master’s degree in counselor education from the College of Education in 2019 and now works as a research assistant at the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness at Penn State) branched out to design children’s masks resembling animals such as a pig, polar bear, cat and dog. By far, she said, the most popular choice among boys has been a snake guise. In fact, a 5-year-old son of one of her students, who had been highly resistant to wearing a mask, selected the reptilian mask and “wouldn’t take it off all day” while acting the part of a hissing snake.

Matteo Tafur

Matteo Tafur, son of Christienna Tawiah, a doctoral candidate in school psychology in the College of Education, cheerfully displays the popular snake face mask that Professor Shirley Woika created.

IMAGE: Photo Provided

For Woika, getting into sewing was originally a hobby born out of necessity. Her oldest son, Benjamin, who lives in Pittsburgh with his son, was born with dwarfism - a condition that causes unusually short stature.

“When he was born, I realized that I probably needed to be able to sew because everything he wore needed to be altered,” said Woika, who eventually started using the leftover fabric from her son’s hemmed pants to make quilts.

Woika said she felt a personal responsibility to put her sewing skills to use when strict social distancing measures were put in place due to the coronavirus crisis. Most graduate students are away from their home and families and don’t have sewing machines.

“I just feel like I’d want someone to take care of my kids if they were in that situation,” she said.

Woika said she adheres to strict safety protocols as part of her mask-making services. She sprays down the masks with fabric disinfectant, seals them and puts them in her mailbox for people to pick up, and also does contactless delivery.

Gaining access to children’s masks will start to become more of an issue, she said, as Pennsylvania, along with the rest of the country, prepares to gradually ease out of strict social distancing mandates. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf recently announced the reopening of 24 counties in the northwest and north-central regions of the state, moving them from red to yellow phase beginning May 8. The transition from red to yellow phase involves the easing loosening of some restrictions on work and social interaction — including the opening of childcare centers that comply with health and safety regulations.

“Come May 8, I don’t think people are just going to open up their doors and let their kids run out with 30 kids in the neighborhood anymore,” Woika said. “Parents are going to be looking for child-size masks.”

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Last Updated May 13, 2020