November brings seasonal change, beautiful colours and of course, the big bangs and flashing fireworks of the 5 November. For many of us, the excitement and stimulation of fireworks is a well-established occasion that we look forward to with some excitement. We understand the need for safe behaviour around the use of fireworks. The implications of not following the golden rules to keep ourselves and others safe are clear.
All of this has come about because of our ability to understand and use language. This underpins nearly everything we do and experience. Yet, for some young children who are struggling to develop their language abilities, understanding and following rules for safe engagement can prove challenging.
Imagine the thrill and excitement of seeing fireworks for the first time! Without the structure of language to allow you to understand the musts and must nots, the do’s and do not’s, it could represent a risk to your safety and well-being.
Don’t say DON’T!
One very important rule for us as responsible adults is that we support children’s understanding by explaining clearly what we need them to do to stay safe.
For young children just developing their language abilities, simple one-part instructions are easier to understand. Explain what you want them to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do. For example, ‘stand beside me’ works better rather than ‘don’t stand over there!’.
Language involving negatives makes instructions very complex. Young children often don’t get the whole of an adult’s sentence and may just get the last part. Therefore, an instruction like ‘don’t ever touch a lit firework’ could have the opposite effect.
For some children, excitement can lead to spontaneity. This could lead to children having reduced attention and listening, causing them to not take in what you are saying.
Having simple rehearsals of how the event is going to happen can help children prepare for it and increase their level of familiarity when it actually occurs. Being able to anticipate events doesn’t reduce their level of excitement, if anything, it adds to the sense of enjoyment when we anticipate a rewarding pay off. Using a countdown system for a firework going off can work well for children and help with anticipation.
Prepare in advance
It is well worth preparing children for fireworks night in advance. There are many excellent children’s books on fireworks.
Books are an excellent way to explore a new or unfamiliar event and prepare children for unpredictable surprises, like the outcome of a rocket being fired into the sky and the long pause before the explosion of light, sound and colour. There are also several short, animated films available to watch through online streaming services such as YouTube or Vimeo.
Talking about the short film you watched together during and afterwards and encouraging children to express their views in a range of different ways can really help prepare children for such exciting and stimulating events.
Children with sensory needs
For some children, fireworks can result in sensory overload and can lead to distress, fear and anxiety. There are some workable solutions for this that require a bit more planning in advance.
Things like a familiar, cosy blanket or ear muffs may work for some children. Staying close by to children helps them feel safe and secure. This is vital.
Just as important for them is knowing they have the right to indicate they don’t like it and want to leave. For some children, this may involve using a pre-learned system for indicating to you that they are not enjoying the event or indeed that they are (a simple thumbs up or down might work well).
Reflecting on practice
Language allows us to access knowledge and understanding. It’s important to think about how you go about explaining the rules and guidelines for keeping children safe around the use of fireworks in advance.
Consider the words you use carefully – how familiar are they to the children you are supporting? How much information are you sharing and how might you ensure children have understood you? How might you re-visit your key messaging to ensure children remember them and feel involved?
Learning to assess risks and follow safety guidelines are part of growing up and ultimately, enjoying new and exciting experiences. With the right levels of support and clear guidance, children can develop positive self-regulation. This in turn helps with generalising these newly formed skills and the path towards being increasingly independent.
If you or any families you work with have questions or would like more ideas, I CAN have a free, confidential helpline and email service where you can have a chat with one of our very friendly speech and language therapists. Call 020 7843 2544 to get through directly or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author
Jon Gilmartin is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Speech and Language Advisor for I CAN, he delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. He also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents.