What sort of activities work best with different ages? How can you make use of opportunities you encounter while you are out and about? Sarah Gniadek-Pitt, road safety officer for Oxfordshire County Council, has developed a range of resources for local parents and childminders. Sarah says: ‘We see our work as all about engaging children to help them make their own decisions. It’s important for childminders to use every opportunity that comes up to talk to children about what they are seeing and experiencing. And our role is to help them think about the right topics to discuss – and the right questions to ask. Whilst, of course, keeping children safe, as they do this.’

Seeing it through a child’s eyes

In developing materials to support childminders and parents, Sarah draws on her own experience of working as a nanny. This helped her understand that children’s perceptions of their surroundings and potential risks are often very different to adults’. ‘You realise that children don’t necessarily want to stop at kerbs – so you have to motivate them to do this,’ she says.

Sarah also recommends squatting down to see the world from a child’s height. ‘It helps you see the world the way the child sees it – in important places like the car park. As adults we can see over the top of cars but as a child you probably won’t see the person getting into the driver’s seat – ready to reverse.’

Finding out what works

Sarah explains that in developing the materials for Oxfordshire, members of her team consulted widely with parents and grandparents – as well as members of the Early Years Team and advisory teachers from the Education Department. Children themselves were also a very important part of the consultation process. ‘We discovered that some of the activities we developed at the start were a bit too advanced for younger children,’ Sarah explains. ‘Older children get benefits from using activity sheets but young children don’t really learn directly from things like colouring activities. They just tend to scribble over the picture, without registering the topic you’re trying to highlight.’

Also, Sarah says, some activities like shining a torch onto fluorescent or reflective clothes in a dark room were great fun for the little ones – but didn’t particularly teach them anything. ‘It was the fours, fives and sixes who actually made the connections with why it’s helpful to wear high visibility clothes to be seen by cars.’

Pre-school age children, Sarah finds, are more likely to benefit from working very closely with their childminder or parent around simple but essential concepts like near and far and fast and slow. Stories and activities which teach and reinforce these fundamental concepts will help children to make sense of the more complex safety messages they need to fully engage with as they grow older. Of course you still need to model safe road behaviour at all times and it is helpful for children to get into good habits from an early age. But it is only when children are truly able to link up their learning that they will begin to apply it appropriately for themselves.

‘As adults it’s sometimes tempting to teach as we were taught but that isn’t always the best way,’ Sarah explains. ‘You can teach a child to recite the Highway Code parrot-fashion, but unless you give it meaning and relevance, the child probably won’t learn very much. If you ask a five year old why you have stopped before the kerb, they probably won’t be able to tell you. Children may need a lot of prompting and regular repetition of words combined with the actual activity, before they make helpful connections.’

Link road safety to other activities

‘Road safety is such an important topic – but it can’t be taught in isolation. So wherever possible try to find links with other areas of the curriculum and children’s general development,’ Sarah advises. ‘If you have a child in a pushchair then talk to them about the cars – this car is blue and that one is red… Also talk to them about things which are fast or slow. It’s good for their vocabulary but also lays building blocks for understanding road safety.’

Sarah recommends that as children get older and you are holding their hands as you walk with them, use this time as an opportunity to start asking questions. What can they hear – a bird, a car, a train? Is that train near or far away? Can you hear the sound but not see what is making the noise? ‘That way you lay the foundations for helping them make future judgements about traffic – so they can really make sense of things like the Highway Code.’