Can be dangerous to the imagination

In: Safe living: Report on the 1st conference “Child safety: What works? - Causes and Avoidance of Accidents in Childhood “1994 in Vienna, 1995, Vienna, 46-58.

In order to develop safety-oriented behavior, we need a number of skills that are only developed step by step in the course of childhood and adolescence. This development takes place at different speeds or slow in different children, so that the age information for reaching certain developmental stages can only be viewed as a rough guide, with large interindividual fluctuations.

In this presentation, we would like to look at the skills relevant to accident prevention and how they can be developed. We would like to ask ourselves which stages of child development enable the acquisition of various behaviors that are important for safety.

We would also like to ask ourselves to what extent children and adolescents are impaired in their safety compared to adults due to their level of development.

An awareness of "safety" and "danger" develops in three stages:

  1. At the first stage, we learn to identify dangerous situations, i. That is, we learn to recognize whether we are in danger or in safety (acute awareness of danger).
  2. In the second stage we learn to foresee dangers; That is, we learn to recognize the behavior through which we can get into danger (anticipatory awareness of danger).
  3. At the third level we learn to develop and apply preventive (preventive, prophylactic) behavior (prevention awareness).

We would like to illustrate these three stages with examples:

To go biking: A child is riding a bike down a slope and is getting faster and faster. If the child perceives this situation as dangerous, it is acutely aware of the danger. If it can already recognize that driving on steeply sloping paths is dangerous because the speed is too high, it has a foresighted awareness of the dangers. The conscious wearing of a helmet while cycling would be a sign of the presence of a prevention awareness.

Climb: A child climbs a high tree and realizes above that it could fall down; it has an acute awareness of danger. If it notices before climbing that it is dangerous at the top, it has a foresighted awareness of the dangers. If it puts mattresses under the tree before climbing, it has already developed an awareness of prevention.

Investigations on the age-dependent development of risk awareness in children provide information about the point in time at which these abilities to recognize, foresee and prevent dangers develop. These studies raise the question of the extent to which children of different ages can recognize and foresee dangerous situations as such. They also ask at what age an understanding of preventive measures develops and whether these skills can be positively influenced by targeted training.

The results can be summarized as follows:

An acute awareness of danger is already present in children aged 5 to 6 (Ocio 1973; Heimstra and Martin 1973).

An anticipatory awareness of danger develops up to the age of about 8 years (Ocio 1973; Faber and War 1977; Küting 1986; Coppens 1986).

The understanding of preventive measures appears even later (9-10 years, cf. Coppens 1986).

In younger children (up to approx. 6 years of age), danger is understood to be environmental and not situation-specific (static awareness of danger). On the “dangerous” street, the child is careful even if no vehicle is coming; on the “quiet” street, it is not careful even though a vehicle is coming (Ocio 1973; Van der Molen 1981, 1983).

Through negative experiences, children become more cautious, but only in the specific accident situation (those who get burned on the stove will be more cautious at the stove in the future, the iron remains attractive, however) and only if cause and effect follow one another directly (see King et al 1988), and this is not the case with many accidents.

Behavioral training methods can be used to learn preventive behaviors in preschool and school age. However, they have to be concrete and situation-specific (e.g. “Don't run on these stairs”, “If the pedestrian traffic lights at the corner fail, come back home”, “You are not allowed to climb this tree” etc.). The younger the children, the more specific the situation and preventive behavior must be (Person 1984; Peterson and Schick 1993; Rosenbau et al. 1981; Jones et al. 1981; Poche et al. 1981).

The development of danger awareness and understanding of preventive measures is related to the development of thinking. Logical thinking seems to be an important prerequisite for recognizing and anticipating dangers as well as for developing preventive measures (Coppens 1986).

Even with existing skills, dangers can only be recognized if the child's attention is focused on the dangerous situations, i. That is, “to concentrate” and “be attentive” are essential determinants of safety-oriented behavior. “Being distracted” is one of the most common causes of childhood accidents.

For this reason, we will look in more detail at the development of attention and concentration in childhood.

“Attention” is understood to mean the ability to focus on “a point”, “a thought”, generally “a stimulus” for a certain period of time and to ignore the other stimuli occurring at the same time as far as possible (Camman and Spiel 1991) . “Increased attention” and “increased concentration” are generally understood to mean the same thing.

The degree of concentration depends on three aspects, namely the complexity of the situation, the required behavior and the level of skill of the person concerned. The higher the concentrative effort, the greater the time limit during which it can be carried out.

In the case of children, the "proficiency" is usually not very high, the dangerous situations are often very complex and the required behavior difficult. Therefore, children are only able to concentrate much less than adults.

Wagner (1991) and Wright and Vliestra (1975) describe the development of attention and concentration as a process that is not completed until the age of 13-14. In preschool age, attention is mainly controlled by interesting and curious stimuli from the environment (dog, children, toys, ice cream stand, etc.). During this time, the children are barely able to provide the attentiveness required for their safety (the chocolate on the cupboard captivates the child's attention more than any of the mother's safety instructions). From about 5 years on, systematic strategies of attention are increasingly used, the child controls his attention more and more consciously. But even 6- to 7-year-old children are easily distracted by interesting stimuli from the environment. Only from the age of about 8 are children able to concentrate over a longer period of time. However, this ability is not fully developed until around 13-14 years of age.

We investigated the role of distraction in connection with the behavior of children in traffic in 1978 (Limbourg and Gerber 1978). It was found that even 6- and 7-year-old children behaved very insecurely under distracting conditions (without distraction, 75-80% of the children stopped at the curb and orientated themselves to both sides, with distraction it was only 29-42% of the children) .

Since the children's ability to pay attention and concentrate is getting worse and worse from year to year (television, video games, too many stimuli), the importance of this factor in accident research will become ever greater.

The nature and extent of the risk exposure of children is also related to their hobbies, leisure activities and play habits. For this reason we want to take a closer look at the development of these areas.

The type and extent of the risk exposure of children depend on the one hand on their different tasks (e.g. to kindergarten or school trip, sport etc.), but on the other hand also with their hobbies, leisure activities and play habits. We would now like to address the age-dependent development of these hobbies, play activities and leisure interests (cf. Hetzer 1990; Todt 1990).

1st and 2nd year of life (sensual interest)

In the first two years of life, vivid impressions in particular captivate the child's attention or interest. The children are curious and interested in all objects of interest from their point of view (cleaning supplies, tablets, pots on the stove, etc. become major sources of danger).

3rd to 7th year of life (subjective interest)

After the age of 2, the interest in purely sensual impressions decreases. The child is now more interested in things themselves and in what you can play with them: a chair interests the child because it can jump around on it, the trees interest it because it can climb on it. Fantasy and reality mix in the game: chairs are a train, the bicycle is a racing car or a horse. The child is strong in such a fantasy world, there is no room for danger in it. This mixing of fantasy and reality can lead to dangerous situations for the child (falls, traffic accidents, burns, etc.).

7 to 10 years of age (objective interest)

In this phase the fantasy games decrease significantly. The child now assesses things according to the extent to which they promote their practical activity. Sports and social activities come to the fore. Cycling, playing football, horse riding, etc. are such activities. Accidents can result from the activity itself or from the fact that these activities often take place in traffic.

11 to 15 years of age (constant interests)

In this phase the children develop objective interests which they pursue over a longer period of time (playing chess, stamp collecting, horse riding, etc.). This is how expertise and competence arise. This increasingly reduces the risk of accidents.

From the age of 15 (logical interests)

Now the focus is on reflection, not practice. The young people are interested in the ideal (religion, science, aesthetics). The risk of accidents is further reduced.

In summary, it can be said that children of different ages are exposed to different dangers due to their age-dependent play habits and interests. For this reason it is of great importance to take this development area into account in the context of prevention programs.

In addition to these three areas of child development, there are also various other skills that are only developed in the course of childhood (perception, motor skills, language, etc.). However, they are not as important to children's safety as developing danger, alertness, interest, and play.

If you look at all relevant areas together, you can only expect reasonably reliable safety-oriented behavior at the age of about 8 years. At around 14 years of age, the required skills are usually developed. It should not be forgotten that even then there are still risk groups who are more at risk than the majority of children due to their social situation or their personality traits.

Summary

In order to develop safety-oriented behavior, children need a number of skills that are only developed in the course of childhood.

An awareness of dangers is only present from about 6 years, but it is not yet of a forward-looking character. The anticipatory awareness of danger only develops from the age of about 8. Understanding of preventive measures occurs even later (approx. 9-10 years).

Dangers can only be recognized if one concentrates on the dangerous situations, i. That is, “being attentive” and “concentrating” are essential determinants of safety-oriented behavior. “Being distracted” is one of the most common causes of childhood accidents. At pre-school age, children are hardly able to provide the attentiveness required for their safety. Children aged 6 to 7 can also be distracted a lot. Only from the age of about 8 are children able to concentrate over a longer period of time. However, this ability is not fully developed until around 13-15 years of age.

The nature and extent of the risk exposure of children is also related to their hobbies, leisure activities and play habits. Based on the developmental psychological findings in these areas, it can be stated that the group of children of preschool age is poorly equipped to cope with dangerous situations due to their mixture of reality and fantasy. The older children are more realistic, but because of their hobbies, their leisure activities and their social orientation, they often stay in danger areas.

In summary, it can be stated that children from about 8 years of age at the earliest are capable of reasonably reliable safety-oriented behavior with large inter-individual fluctuations. In distraction situations, even older children will show risky behaviors. For these reasons it is necessary to design the environment in such a way that it poses as few dangers as possible for our children.

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