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It is a statutory requirement that the childminded children are ‘within our sight or hearing at all times’. Never-the-less I don’t know a single childminder who hasn’t at some point found themselves in the frightening situation of losing a child. It is at these rare moments when childminded children find themselves alone that they may need to know what to do about the problem of strangers.
All children need a basic message about strangers that you can build on as they grow older. For the youngest children the message needs to be simple and direct without being too scary. Ultimately, by the time they are walking home alone from school, you hope that every child will know what to do in the unlikely event of a ‘stranger’ winding down the car window and offering them a lift!
What is a Stranger?
The first thing that small children need to be able to do is to understand what a stranger is. Many children of pre-school age will have no idea what it means to be a ‘stranger’ even if those same children may already sound like they know catch phrases like ‘say no to strangers’ or ‘don’t talk to strangers’. So don’t let children fool you!
Talk about what a stranger is with children while you are out and about. This is not as straightforward as it initially sounds. At a most basic level, a stranger can be described as someone that we don’t know or someone that we don’t know well. Children need to know that while most strangers are kind, there are some who might not be.
Test their understanding by pointing to people randomly on the street. Is he a stranger? Yes. Is she a stranger? Yes. When you do this you will find that there are many people who fall into the category of ‘sort-of’ – the man who walks the dog that we say ‘good morning’ to each day on the school run is not a complete stranger but we don’t know his name or even which house he lives in. When in doubt about ‘sort-of-strangers’ my policy is to teach the children to always treat sort-of-strangers as strangers.
Never GO Anywhere with a Stranger
The message ‘don’t talk to strangers’ that we may have learned as children ourselves doesn’t make sense to children because it is contradictory and is no longer taught routinely to children. Not only do adults talk to strangers all the time, they frequently encourage small children to introduce themselves to strangers or even to trust strangers.
One key message many people use today is: Never GO anywhere with a stranger. This way the child understands that while it is ok to talk to strangers, you must never go anywhere with one.
Depending on the age and maturity of the children you look after you could consider practicing this one too. When we were in the local supermarket I would ask the three and four year olds questions like this:
“Suppose a man comes up to you and says, ‘can you show me where the bread aisle is?’ What should you do?’”
The child must reply to the imaginary man: “No, I’m sorry but I’m not allowed to go anywhere with a stranger.”
The children would laugh when I did this exercise, which we tried in several places and several imaginary situations. Keeping it light-hearted while stressing the seriousness of the message is a great way to practice so that the children are aware of what to do.
As children get older you can extend this message to strangers in cars, strangers at the park, etc. This basic message works where ‘don’t talk to strangers’ fails because it naturally develops as the child gets older.
Never take gifts or sweets from a stranger
The message about never taking gifts from a stranger is another important message for the pre-school age group. Practice this one too until the children can chorus the ‘right’ answer back at you.
“What if you’re at the park, and a little old lady is offering all the children sweets. All your friends have taken one. They’re your favourites. Should you take one?”
The child must reply to the imaginary old lady: “No thank you, I’m not allowed to take sweets from strangers.”
Again, as the children get older, this message will grow with them and ‘sweets’ will come to represent many of the other things that children should not accept from strangers.
Who are “Safer Strangers”?
As children get older you may want to introduce the idea of ‘safer strangers’ and ‘safer buildings’. The Safer Strangers, Safer Buildings code promote the idea that not all strangers are bad and that children need to know that on certain occasions you may need to ask a stranger to help you. The campaign teaches children how to take responsibility for their own safety, should they get lost. It helps children learn about the kind of strangers who are safe for them to speak to, and the buildings they can go into if they need help.
Download the free information pack about the Safer-Strangers, Safer Buildings Code. This is a wonderful resource with clear messages for children and adults. Some of it is more applicable to older children who will be out alone, but the idea that some strangers are ‘safer strangers’ is useful even to pre-school children.
The three key points in the Safer Strangers, Safer Buildings safety code:
- A safer stranger is a person who is working at a job which helps people. Safer strangers will often be wearing a uniform. Safer strangers could be police officers, traffic wardens, shopkeepers, check-out assistants, and others.
- Safer buildings could be banks, post offices, libraries, medical centres, shops, supermarkets, leisure centres, and others.
- If you get lost, or feel unsafe, and there is no adult around that you know and trust, look for a safer stranger who you can ask for help. If you can’t see a safer stranger outside, look for a safer building you can go into, to ask for help from the people who work there.
Watch the “Teigan gets lost film” www.childseyemedia.com/safety.html with your children and talk together about the safer strangers and safer buildings in your area. Identify some of the safer strangers in your area – the supermarket like the example in the film is a wonderful, practical starting point for the youngest children.
Practice and review
Like all things you are teaching children, the best way to learn something is to review it. While you are out and about occasionally it’s a great idea to spring a ‘pop quiz’ on the children. Is that person a stranger? What would you do if….. and make them think.
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