“Don’t worry that children never listen to you, worry that they are always watching you.” by Robert Fulgham
Firefighters spend time every year visiting school classrooms, usually in October during Fire Prevention Week. As a teacher, it is a wonderful opportunity to give kids access to local heroes, people you know you can trust. The fire service is definitely a good community partner.
In their enthusiasm to visit classrooms, many firefighters are ill-prepared to truly teach children. Firefighters recieve very little, if any background on child developement, childhood education, and the other skills teachers spend years in college to develop. While the kids have a great time and meet some great people, it is important to understand that they may not have developed better skills to prevent fires or to protect themselves in fires.
The first and most important concept is that fire and life safety require more than one week of attention per year. It would be as if one week were all that is necessary to teach math skills. Spend a week on math…move on to something else. That clearly wouldn’t work. Fire and life safety are important all year long. While firefighters may be able to visit once each year, use other opportunities as the teacher of kids to re-visit the important messages at every opportunity, all year long.
The one message kids most often remember is “Stop, Drop, and Roll.” This is, in fact, an important skill once a person catches on fire. However, the fact that kids can repeat these three words on command does not mean they are capable of performing the act when the time comes. This message is usually not accompanied by the realities of burns. Even if it were, the stages of child development presented by Piaget would suggest that children under the age of 12 will not understand the abstract concepts associated with fire.
Stop, Drop, and Roll, like many messages shared by visiting firefighters, seem to suggest that fire is inevitable so we can only prepare for what to do after it happens. Fire rates, fire death rates, and fire injury rates remain on a steady decline. But fires do still start. Time might be better spent on messages that can prevent fire, fire injury, and fire death. Probably the most important message in the fire safety education spectrum is “Matches/Lighters are Tools, not Toys.” This simple misunderstanding by kids drives much of the youth firesetting issue that is responsible for the existance of this article and web site. Kids recognize tools in their home but often do not recognize matches/lighters as tools. While they don’t call them toys, our society very easily uses the term “playing with fire” to indicate they do have a toy-like quality. Help kids recognize things that are tools and things that are toys and what makes them different. It’s surprising how easily this can be learned.
Telling an adult when matches/lighters are found is also important. Kids need to be equipped with what action to take. Much of the success of this message is in the hands of parents so sending home material that helps educate parents can help a lot. At some point, kids can pick up and secure or dispose of matches/lighters directly. This has much to do with their level of development and responsibility. Teachers may know better than anyone where a particular child lands for this decision. When in doubt, at 12 continues to surface, from a development standpoint, as a good benchmark.
Fire safety should be a family topic. But as with many issues, it doesn’t always happen at home. The best efforts of firefighters are often not enough to get the job done. When fire safety is delivered with the same thought, preparation, and follow through that all lessons use, a difference can be seen. Help kids live safe and help your community prepare kids to prevent fires, not just act if one occurs. It might just save a life.