Keeping children safe from the outside in and the inside out

Learning to sand OKidsafe Week is celebrated in October In Australia, this year marking 40 years since car child restraints were introduced here.  Safety legislation and advice on how to keep children safe at home, near water, in playgrounds and so on, has improved enormously in recent years, but there are also new risks unfolding all the time so parents need to be continually alert to new dangers.

Kidsafe SA give good advice on child safety —including a Home Safety List for parents and also all those new to child minding, grandparents, aunts, friends and neighbours.They also remind us about a few new dangers, for example, the possibility of severe burns from hair straighteners and buying possibly uncertified car restraints on-line. Their reminders are about safety provided by you in children’s environments,  from ‘the outside in’.

Kidsafe SA also point out:

There is a strong association between age of a child, developmental stage, how the child interacts with their environment, the type of activities the child undertakes, socio-economic status, gender, and the type of injury the child sustains (WHO & UNICEF 2008).

It is important to take note of the particular vulnerability of your children and their specific ages. The vulnerability of certain temperaments in children may not surprise you but the changing behavioural tendencies of successive developmental stages may. Children in bold expansive developmental stages (like Four and Eight Years) are more likely to take more risks, and injure themselves more often. They may need more supervision and/or teaching about safety at such times.More on the risks at each specific age can be found in my child development profiles.

The need for challenging play – should you risk it?

It is clear we need to take responsibility to make environments safer for children, especially little ones. But we need also to note what Kidsafe SA says about the need for healthy adventurous play. One of their headers says it succinctly. ‘Challenging play- risk it.’ They stress that a playground is more than just a playground. Kidsafe SA say:

Play is fundamental for children’s growth, development and learning. Play allows children to gain the life skills, competencies and values necessary for a happy and productive adult life. Children most commonly learn these life skills in the ‘playground’. Our thinking about play should be broadened from confined areas that contain only modular, fixed equipment, to areas that are diverse, flexible and interactive learning environments.

Dealing with risk from the inside out – teaching competence.

The transition from, ideally, the safer controlled environment of home, school and official municipal playground to more challenging free play and everyday activities needs us to educate our children about safety ‘from the inside out’. This is not just about warnings and admonitions but about teaching competence in dealing with dangers from an early age, in ways appropriate to that age. To understand about dangers and the need for safe ways to do things, children learn best when they can see and experience everyday dangers for themselves in a safe way. When they are given the time to develop competence and safety knowledge, we are then dealing with risk from the ‘inside out’!

A good example of learning needed very early on is learning about hot things. Admonitions not to touch are not enough. They need help to experience what heat is and why there is danger in it. They need supervised experience of the heat from the top of the toaster, the oven, the hot plate, the radiator, the tip of a drill after use, the candle flame. Remind them what heat is capable of – it burns the paper, cooks our food and so on. They need to know heat and fires can be dangerous and that we need to respect the safety rules around this.

From an early age they may see you light matches so teach them how it is done safely and what the rules are. You strike the matches away from yourself. You watch out for hot bits flying off the match. Children never do it without supervision/permission even if, when older, that may be just verbal permission. We never leave candles burning in a room without someone older being present. If they learn these early and are given practice in doing it right, safely, they are less likely to get into trouble when they are a little older when they can take the matches without your knowing and be off with their friends to experiment. If you teach them well they are also likely to remind you about the safety rules if you get careless! Be grateful for their sometimes bossy reminders!

With a little forethought we can give even very young children experiences of being near hot things safely—for example young children can use a small travel iron if they are wearing pure woolen gloves, with you always watching over them. A useful thing to teach slightly older children is the old fashioned way to test if a surface is very hot—to spit on your finger and then give a very quick touch. They learn if it spits then it is hot but the wetness has protected their finger against being burnt.

In this way we are teaching safety and competence incrementally from very early on. Another example is the danger of sharp tools like knives. Yes, we warn them that some knives can be especially sharp, cooking knives and ‘Stanley knife’ type cutting blades in particular. But we can also teach them to use knives safely. Very young toddlers can practice cutting something soft, like banana, or play dough, with a blunt knife, making sure the blade is held well away from the fingers. Later we teach them that cutting hard things that give way suddenly, like carrot, need a sharper knife, even greater care, and more experience.  As they get even older we teach them that with very sharp craft knives they should always, always cut away from themselves. To use whittling, lino cutting or carving tools safely they need to know and respect these rules and have good supervision.

Children need experience to understand. Where it is possible to safely give them the experience, this is the most potent learning opportunity. It is really not helpful to remove all the roses from the garden to prevent them from pricking their fingers on the thorns (as some child-care centre regulations require). At home it is better to show them the thorns and how sharp they are and warn them to be careful. On the other hand, very sharp burrs or thorns on the ground may need more serious precautions. One needs to be sensible about this.

Taking safety seriously: modelling safe practices

Children need to see that you take safety seriously. You need to model safe practices consistently. You wear a seat belt. They wear a seat belt. You wear ear muffs using noisy machinery like lawnmowers, they wear ear muffs helping you.

A good place to learn safety is in the home workshop. Here they learn to protect their feet, their eyes and their ears particularly. They need to see you do this! When you teach them to use these tools themselves, you let them practice safety and become more competent. Confidence and wise safety practices develop from this.

An important rule to follow in teaching safety is that there should always be an adult present while they are learning how to do something new. At very independent ages, this can be resisted vehemently – “Do it MYSELF!” they cry. A little story about our popular friends the firemen may help. Even firemen have another fireman with more knowledge with them, to give reminders and lend another pair of eyes and ears, when they are learning to drive a big firetruck. Good firemen take safety seriously—they practice safety procedures very often to keep themselves and us as safe as we all can be.

So we lead them to consider their own and other people’s safety when they do a wide variety of things. As they get older it may be they get taught by other experts—the swimming or adventure sports instructor and so on—but we support this learning by taking it seriously ourselves.

Personal safety, avoiding abuse, is another whole area of concern met in part by teaching good personal boundaries from when children are very young—see more in Teaching Protective Behaviours. As they get older they also need clear guidance and practice in going into the world without you. There is more guidance on this in the specific age Profiles, especially those of Ten and older.

All this means more time spent with your children, but it is a commitment well rewarded in the long run. It means finding ways to keep your children safe while still allowing them to experience more challenging activities which develop courage, confidence, competence, wisdom and more – qualities which will keep them ‘safe’ in a different way when they are older. All this involves keeping them safe both from the ‘outside in’ and teaching them to be safe from the ‘inside out’.