It’s easy to see why kids are fascinated with fire. It’s comprised of beautiful colors, its movement is mesmerizing, and at the proper distance, it provides warmth and comfort. But it’s also easy to see why kids sometimes get into trouble with it. Think about the fire safety education you received as a child. You probably had a visit to your school from a fireman or took a field trip to a fire department. You might have been told stories and shown pictures of huge flames and burned homes, and reminded never to play with matches. It is a fairly standard method of teaching children about fire safety, but is it really giving them an understanding of fire as they know it?
A child’s perception of fire is limited, and of a different scope than adults. Consider the type of fire to which children are normally exposed: candles, matches, or lighters. These fires are small and easily extinguished. Through these examples, a child recognizes fire as something they can stop with a puff of their breath. When they see larger fires, such as those in barbecues, campfire pits or fireplaces, the fires are contained and easily controlled by the adults in the area. A young child exposed only to these types of fires often can’t grasp how they can grow and spread.
Between 2007 and 2011, an average of 49,300 fires per year originated with children, and 43% of those were started by children under the age of six.* Education is essential, but must be presented with more than a quick talk:
- Observe your own behavior: do you leave unattended candles around the house, step away from lit stovetops or barbecues, or let a fire burn in the fireplace while you are out of the room? For children, this creates the impression the fire isn’t a danger. If you set off a smoke alarm while cooking, do you just ignore it? This conditions kids to disregard them as well. Do you flick a lighter on and off as a habit or impulse? Children imitate what they see. Actions you might not even think about are influencing your children.
- Communicate the rules clearly: a child who is allowed to use the stovetop, light a candle, or have other interactions with fire while in the presence of an adult may not automatically think to refrain from the activity when not supervised. Be very clear about what activities are permitted with and without an adult present.
- Out of sight, out of mind: Keep ignition materials like matches and lighters out of reach, and ideally, locked up. Even child-resistant lighters shouldn’t be accessible, because children are resourceful enough to start them, deliberately or even accidentally. Children should also be taught to alert an adult if they find ignition materials so the items can be safely removed.
There are many resources for fire safety education, and even a multimedia education program created by Bic Corporation for young children called play safe! be safe!® By instilling in children a healthy respect and stronger understanding of the dangers, we can lower the occurrence of child-originated fires.
*Source: National Fire Protection Association