A Guide to Teaching Safety

Eliza Clark
August 22, 2014

"Never tilt your chair back on two legs."

"Never bother a dog while it's eating."

"Never put anything in your ear."

These are just a few of the safety tips that Office Buckle does his best to impart to the children of the fictional town of Napville in Peggy Rathmann's Caldecott Medal-winning book, Office Buckle and Gloria.

These are also just a few of the safety tips we parents do our best to impart to our preschool-age children. Do the kiddos listen? Occasionally. Do they retain what we're saying? We hope so. Do they practice what we preach? With constant reminders, mostly.

Teaching our children safety is really a parent's number one job. Yes, we want them to explore and grow and learn, but above all else we want them to be safe from serious harm. Bumps and bruises may be signs of healthy adventuring, but no parent wants to end up in the ER with their child because some basic safety precaution was ignored.

So how do we teach safety to young children?

It's not at all easy. Small kids don't listen terribly well (understatement!). They have very fuzzy notions of cause and consequence. And "what if" scenarios make little sense to them.

Cue Office Buckle and his trusty police dog, Gloria. In Rathmann's marvelous tale, Office Buckle is a sturdy mustachioed fellow who takes safety very seriously—so seriously that children fall asleep during his dull school safety presentations. It's only when his new police dog Gloria tags along that the crowd of children starts listening up. As Office Buckle reads off his dozens of tips, behind his back Gloria pantomimes each disastrous scenario. When Buckle intones, for example, "NEVER leave a THUMBTACK where you might SIT on it!" Gloria leaps into the air holding her rear. The kids roar. They also listen, and "after this safety speech, there wasn't a single accident." But when the officer discovers his dog's deception, he is terribly hurt and refuses to carry on with the show. It's only after a serious accident occurs that the two friends make up and realize that the most important safety tip is to "ALWAYS STICK WITH YOUR BUDDY!"

Needless to say, this book is a huge hit with the preschool-age crowd, and a great introduction to the concept of safety rules. It's also a wonderful primer for parents on how to teach kids these rules that are so important to their well-being. With Buckle and Gloria as our guides, here's how we approach it:

  • Be serious, and also make it fun.  We have to show children that we are serious about safety rules (which includes giving consequences when they don't abide by them), but at the same time find ways to teach those rules in an engaging and memorable way. So get physical, like Gloria. Show the kids where to stop at the curb (two feet back), and show them how to look both ways with exaggerated motions, your hand to your brow, scanning the street. Practice in your living room at the edge of a rug. Teach their bodies as well as their minds—it's the only way this stuff will ever sink in.
  • Teach safety continuously. Office Buckle is forever jotting down safety tips that cross his mind, and likewise parents of young children always need to have safety on their minds. This does not mean being in a constant state of high anxiety; on the contrary, it means talking calmly and frequently with our kids about the safety issues big and small that present themselves in daily life.
  • Develop pithy safety reminders, or borrow some of Buckle's. Once your child pretty well understands a safety rule, continuing to give long explanations over and over may become counterproductive. We all know how good kids are at tuning us out. But if you can come up with pithy safety sayings, you can use these to remind your kids in a positive way of the safety rules they already know. (So you can say "remember to walk with the scissors" rather than "if you run with those scissors you might trip and cut yourself or hurt someone else and I don't want to end up in the ER today!!!")
  • Let them learn from accidents, as do our heroes in Napville. When mishaps occur (and they will), let them be teachable moments. Resist heaping on "I told you," and of course make comforting your child the first priority. But when the dust settles a bit, you can talk about what went wrong. Why wasn't it safe to stand up on that chair? What happened when you did? What's the safety rule for chairs?
  • Help to build family and community safety norms. The most important rule, according to Buckle and Gloria, is to "stick with your buddy," and indeed, this is a very powerful concept for young children. When they see all the kids wearing helmets to ride their scooters, and all the kids buckling up in their cars, then they want to do the same. Siblings can be a huge help in reinforcing safety rules in families, and older children will watch and learn from their friends. So talk about safety norms with other parents buddies in your communities—it's a good place to start.

To get you going, here are a few Savvy traffic safety activities that are fun and engaging for the kids. You'll also find good ways to teach young children their personal information here and here. The following articles are also a big help:


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