Help children to understand what risk actually is and the part they can play in minimising risk and doing things safely. Margaret Collins describes how children can learn to be risk assessors at school

You will automatically organise an annual health and safety inspection within your setting, to meet legal requirements. You will assess the risks in the workplace, in the outside spaces, when carrying out certain activities and when taking children on visits. This is vital if children are to be kept safe. Yet how many settings help the children to understand what risk actually is and the part they can play in minimising risk and doing things safely?

Involving children in risk assessment

Young children find it hard to understand what the words ‘risk’, ‘danger’ and ‘hazards’ mean. I asked children in a preschool – one child said ‘Risky’s what my daddy drinks’. When asked what a hazard was one child said, ‘It’s a kind of big bird’ (a buzzard?). ‘Danger’ is more easily understood – they all knew all about the danger signs they see up near building works.

The older pre-school children explaining ‘risk’ said:

  • it’s hard for you
  • it means a little bit naughty – like writing on somebody’s work and teacher will tell you off
  • plugs
  • biting people – it’s naughty, you have to stand by the wall
  • eating Mummy’s cakes
  • if you can only paddle, it’s risky in the sea
  • taking a biscuit or a sweet without asking
  • jumping over a big hole in the sand.

So if we want to help children to understand what risk, danger and hazards really are we must first explain what these words mean.

Taking a risk – is when you think about what might happen and try to make sure you either keep safe when you do it or decide not to do it. For example, if it’s raining, the non-risky thing to do is to wear rainproof clothes; if something is hot, either don’t touch it, or wear oven gloves; if walking along a high wall looks risky, don’t do it or hold Mum’s hand.

Danger on the other hand is always there. Train lines are dangerous – always. Poking things in electric plug sockets is dangerous – always.

A hazard is always something to avoid.

Assess the risks
To help children to understand risk, you can keep awareness raised by prefacing your instructions about work or activities with the question; ‘How will we avoid the risks?’ For example, when working in the sand – ‘don’t throw it’, when lining up – ‘don’t push’, when painting – ‘wear aprons’.

It is only by talking with children about risk and by engaging them in meaningful work about it that children will begin to recognise risks for themselve

Activities for involving children in risk assessment

Take a risk assessment walk
With the children, walk around your building, inside and out and take a fresh look at what could cause harm. Ask them:

  • who might be harmed and how
  • how each hazard they identify could cause harm.
  • how to modify hazards so that all risks are small.
  • to record their findings by drawing the risk and the solution.

Discuss risk
In circle time we talked about doing things in a safe way or a risky way. Holding scissors was easy; they knew how to hold them carefully with the closed blades in their hands. ‘What would be risky?’ ‘Holding them by the handle, with the points out.’ I was told.

We talked about many things in the classroom that could be done in a safe way or a risky way, such as leaning back on two legs of a chair, running on wet floor, pushing someone, walking around with a wet paintbrush…

I asked the children to think about doing something in a safe way and doing the same thing in a risky way. They quickly caught on, emphasising the correct and safe thing and showing contempt for people who did these things in a risky way.

Draw and talk
Ask the children to draw someone doing something risky and then come to an adult to talk about it. Ask the following prompt questions:

  • What is the person doing?
  • Why is it risky?
  • What would you say to the person?

On the children’s pictures write the key words they used in reply.

I have found that many children draw fantasy pictures, such as fighting monsters, falling off tall buildings; others draw naughty things – stealing a biscuit, running across a road, whilst others draw children doing ‘grown up things’ – smoking or drinking beer.

Common responses were:

  • Why it was risky?: ‘They could be hurt.’
  • What you say to the person?: ‘Stop it’ or ‘Don’t’, only a few of them qualifying it with ‘because….’

A follow-up activity could be to draw two pictures – one of someone doing something in a risky way and one of the same person doing the same thing in a safe or non-risky way. Again, discussion of the pictures is the key to understanding and because the examples are from the children they will be relevant.

Using children’s literature
Using children’s stories and rhymes you can:

  • put children into situations which you wouldn’t, or couldn’t in real life
  • help them to recognise risks and dangers
  • question various alternative options for the character choose
  • be reflective about what has happened
  • look at different ways to solve problems
  • recognise persuasion and pressure

Many young children’s stories have an element of risk in them. The three billy goats gruff took a calculated risk when walking over the bridge. Goldilocks took a risk going into the three bears’ house and Red Riding Hood in talking to the wolf. When reading stories to your children, point out the risks or risky behaviour and get the children to say how the risk could be minimised, how it could be done safely or whether it was better not to do it at all. In the safe environment of a story it is very comforting to assess the character’s risky behaviour and decide what better thing could be done instead.

Collins, M (2006) First Choices, Teaching Children Aged 4-8 to Make Positive Decisions about Their Own Lives, A Lucky Duck Book, Paul Chapman Publishing, London.