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Language for explaining: helping children to assess risk and stay safe

Everywhere we look there are potential dangers and risks - especially with fireworks and bonfires coming up - but there are also opportunities to experience and enjoy. We can't live without risk but what we can help children (and ourselves) to do, is to learn about them to help keep themselves safe. 

What does learning to be safe involve?

For us, as practitioners, it means explaining often complex instructions in ways that children can understand, remember and follow. This involves them listening to and remembering what the adults around them have said and being able to apply this information to the right situations, at the right times. It also draws on children's abilities to regulate what they do in different situations. 

What can help us to do this?

Talk about the behaviour we want to see. What we want children to do, not what we don't want them to do. As you can see from that last sentence, once you start involving negatives it gets very complex. For example, I say to you, 'Don't imagine a cream cake'. What are you thinking of? A cake worthy of a Bake Off winner with cream oozing out of it?

Language helps us to visualise and bring to life ideas and thoughts, but often young children are still developing their understanding of negatives and ONLY remember the last thing they hear. So if you say, 'Don't touch the fireworks' the image in their heads is of spectacular lights and colours and they completely forget or dismiss the 'don’t touch' part of the instruction. So, we need to think around this creatively by saying things like, 'Stand on the white line' (or wherever the safe place to stand is). 

Breaking things down. If you say, 'Stand behind the white line that's painted in front of the shed with your hands in your pockets' you might see some blank expressions. If you say, 'Stand on the white line' then wait for the children to find the white line before saying 'Hands by your side', you are giving them a chance to understand what you've said. Don’t just rely on verbal instructions - physically showing children where to go and practising what to do to will help them to remember. 

Repeating things. Going through and practising means that children get to rehearse and remember. You're making it clear what you expect and you're giving them lots of opportunities to repeat a script. 

Give them a reminder. These blogs often talk about visual support but it works! You can take photographs of the children standing where they need to, showing what they're supposed to do or draw pictures of how you behave for each step of being around fireworks or crossing the road. This way you've drawn up your expectations together.

Making the rules together. If children are at the stage where they can do this, you can make a plan of how to stay safe together, including their ideas (creative and spoken!). Children are more likely to know how to stay safe if they've been involved in working this out. 

Supporting children with sensory needs

Some young children can find situations like fireworks too much. They can be on sensory overload with the noises, sights and other people getting exciting. Finding some way to reassure these children or reduce the sensory overload can help them be part of the events. Sometimes, parents have already got solutions to these and will produce a cosy blanket and a pair of ear muffs. They may also benefit from their own personal visual support to reassure and remind them of what to do and where to go. 

Reflecting on practice:

  • How do you explain rules and guidelines for keeping children safe? What sort of language do you use (have a think about the vocabulary you use; the amount of information you give children). What props, supports or aids do you use? 
  • Do you practise or rehearse with children so that they have a script to follow in their heads?
  • What sort of reminders do you give them? Are these in the right place at the right time? Do they work for children? Do the children know where to look for reminders?

A life without risk doesn't exist but we can support children to learn about and assess risks so that they can enjoy new experiences, and learning the vocabulary they need to stay safe is a huge part of this. It's also an opportunity for them to develop self-regulation, to be increasingly independent and also consulted as part of the process. 

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