Young children deserve to live and play in safe environments, and it is the responsibility of every adult to help keep children safe. Preschool children should not be expected to actively protect themselves; however, it is important to offer children the opportunity to learn about safety as early in life as possible. Learning safe habits during early years may have life-long benefits. Integrating safety education into the daily curriculum can help children learn and practice safety. Caregivers can improve the chance of success by working in partnership with parents and guardians to encourage safety education for children.
Teaching children about safety is not that different from early childhood education in general, but safety information may prove particularly important during potentially dangerous times. Children take information literally, and may be easily frightened, especially if they sense tension or fear from adults. Teachers and caregivers should use developmentally-appropriate practices when teaching children about safety and focus on behaviors the child can do to stay safe, rather than on situations that are out of their control. For example, children can learn to fasten a seat belt, but they cannot do anything about adults who drive too fast.
Consistent routines and adult modeling are essential in safety education. Implementing safety measures throughout the day, such as counting all children when loading or unloading the bus or cars, taking attendance each day, and checking for all children before leaving the center or playground, helps children see that their safety is valued. Incorporating safety activities into the daily routine is an ideal way to help children establish early safety habits. For example, to prevent falls, preschool children can learn to push their chairs under the table when they get up, clean up their spills, tie their shoes, and walk, not run, when indoors. Practicing emergency drills on a regular schedule gives children an opportunity to become familiar with them and may minimize their panic during true emergencies.
Daily outside time also offers many opportunities for learning about safety. Establishing and reminding children about simple safety rules can reinforce safety education. Children can be involved in creating the rules and helping to design posters to display them in words and pictures.
Learning from the Environment
Children learn by interacting with their environment. Adding safety-related materials to the learning centers is one way to introduce safety concepts. For example, a variety of real, unconnected telephones can help children practice dialing 911. It is important to provide many types of telephones, including public pay phones (which do not require coins to dial 911) and cellular phones, so children are more likely to practice on a phone similar to one they might find at home or in other settings. Life jackets, floats, and related materials can be used to introduce water safety concepts. A crossing guard vest can be used in the dramatic play area and miniature signs can be added to the block and small vehicle area to introduce traffic safety.
Adding seat belts (available from car salvage businesses) for children to practice and use in the dramatic play area enhances small muscle development while reinforcing the importance of "buckling up." Car seats can be provided for "buckling up" the dolls, while belts, backpacks, shoes, and other materials with buckles encourage buckle practice.
Helmets should be part of the playground or indoor riding area equipment. Every child should wear a helmet every time he or she is on a tricycle or big wheel, or in a wagon. Provide a variety of helmets adjusted to various sizes and let children choose the helmets that best fits them. It is not essential that the helmet fit exactly; however, children should learn to always buckle the chin strap and place the helmet correctly on the head (not tilted back on the head).
Remember that children should only wear helmets while riding on wheeled toys and not while playing on other equipment due to potential entrapment or strangulation hazards. Other safety equipment, such as knee and elbow pads and gloves, may be used during tricycle riding to establish the early habit of protecting the body. Traffic signs can be added to the tricycle path to reinforce traffic safety.
Adult-directed activities also help children develop safety habits. Reading stories, singing songs, reciting poems, facilitating short discussions, and demonstrating skills can effectively teach safety concepts. There are many children's books that include safety concepts in the content, even though the book title may not indicate this. Songs and chants are great ways to teach safety and easy for children to remember. Discussing safety words like "caution" and "hazard" can extend children's understanding and language development. Demonstrating and helping children practice safety drills (fire, tornadoes, bus evacuation, etc.) is an essential part of emergency preparedness.
Many local organizations and agencies have safety materials, and often their staff will visit childcare programs and share their expertise. Look around and see what safety lessons within your community might be valuable to preschool children. Possible guests can include firefighters, paramedics, crossing guards, life guards, and police officers. When inviting a guest to the program, be sure he or she understands how to teach children and avoids scare tactics or graphic details. Some concepts are most effectively taught over a period of several days, such as "stop, drop, roll" and "get low and go." This teaching can then be followed by inviting fire fighters to show the fire engine, safety gear, and equipment.
It is important to consider the safety education needs of the children and families in each community. It may be necessary to identify a variety of resources to help you address the specific safety needs of children and families. For example, families living on farms have situations that families in cities do not face.
In geographical areas where the temperature is frequently high, sun protection needs greater attention. Encouraging children to wear protective clothing and avoiding play time outside in the middle of the day when it is the hottest can help reduce sun exposure. Sun screen (SPF 15) is important too, but check your local program policies, state licensing regulations, and funding mandates before utilizing it in a program with young children.
Connie Jo Smith, EdD, Early Childhood Education Specialist, Training & Technical Assistance Services, Western Kentucky University
Amy S. Hood, EdD, Infant and Toddler Specialist, Training and Technical Assistance Services, Western Kentucky University
Farm Safety 4 Just Kids, www.fs4jk.org
Growing, Growing Strong; A Whole Health Curriculum for Young Children, RedLeaf Press; 800-423-8309; www.redleafpress.org
I Am Amazing, Healthy Child Publications; 877-258-6178; www.healthychild.net
Learn Not To Burn, National Fire Protection Association; 617-770-0200; www.nfpa.org
National Program for Playground Safety; 800-554-PLAY; www.uni.edu/playground