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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Learning to be safe: developing children’s perceptions of safety and risk

Janette Ryan

Australia’s history of child injury prevention is one of the best in the world. Child injury/mortality rates have fallen by approximately 66% since the 1970s. Nevertheless, there is a need for new measures to complement current approaches to child safety.

One reason for further measures is that hospital admission rates for child injury remain unacceptably high, with injury the most common cause of death in children after the first year of life. Another reason is that conventional approaches to child safety often pay insufficient attention to recent changes in social conditions and in the patterns of children’s behaviour, such as alterations in diet.

One social change with major implications for children’s wellbeing has been the reduction in children’s opportunities for physical play. This trend is due in part to an increase in vicarious experiences, for example through increasing exposure to the media and computer games. The trend also derives, however, from a heightened concern among parents and teachers about stranger danger, car danger, and general possibilities of injury. The resulting fall in physical recreation carries its own risks for children, as it can lead to increased levels of obesity, decreased physical fitness, eye and back problems, anxiety and depression (Robbé, 2004) and a reduction in the social and cognitive development that comes with play (McInerney & McInerney, 2002; Krause, Bochner & Duchesne, 2003).

This focus on risk avoidance rather than risk management is accompanied by the reinforcement of an adult-controlled approach to child safety, in the form of teacher surveillance, control of the physical environment, and messages to children that are negative (the don’ts) rather than positive. A study by Green and Hart (1998) found that children’s recall of prevention advice from school was largely about prohibitions, and boys in particular reported a completely risk-free environment to be ‘no fun’.

Clearly a balance is required between a safe environment and a challenging one in which children can play creatively and learn appropriate risk-taking behaviour.

A child-centred approach to child safety

Programs should provide children with the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to make their own decisions about safe behaviours in contemporary settings. Green and Hart’s research provides evidence that children do have worthwhile knowledge about injury prevention. The children involved in their study pointed out, for example, that risky behaviour happens not just as a result of individual choice but as part of group activity. Tapping into children’s experience and using it as a basis for learning about safety may increase the effectiveness of injury prevention programs.

There is great potential for developing child-centred safety education programs in schools that allow young children to make informed decisions about the potential risks and dilemmas involved in everyday actions. Such programs can include the development of curriculum resources that develop children’s cognitive understandings of risk management and aim to develop a whole-school safety culture.

A move to encourage children’s sense of responsibility for their own behaviour is consistent with new approaches to learning being introduced in Australian schools. These approaches emphasise the roles of metacognition and autonomous decision-making in learning, including life-long and life-wide learning (see Cambourne, 1988; Candy, 1991; Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; McInerney & McInerney, 2002; ACDE, 2001; ACDE, 2004; Arnold & Ryan, 2003).

The current study

A project administered through Monash University’s Faculty of Education and the Monash University Accident Research Centre, funded through an Australian Research Council linkages grant, is currently investigating a child-centred approach to child safety.

The study will involve a number of Victorian Government and independent schools in Ballarat, Bendigo and Melbourne over a three-year period. Schools will be chosen to represent a range of socioeconomic communities.

Seven schools using conventional child safety programs will be chosen. The other seven schools are trialling a child-centred safety education program run by the K.I.D.S Foundation Child Injury Prevention Program. The K.I.D.S. Foundation organisation, with the support of the Victorian Department of Education and WorkSafe Victoria, is involved in a range of school education programs around areas of high risk, such as road safety, water safety, sun safety, farm and community safety, and playground and classroom safety.

Focus groups will be set up for 50 children selected from the 14 schools. The children will be asked about how they perceive safety and risk, and the changes in their knowledge and attitudes about safety as a result of participating in a safety education program. The students, in Years 4 and 6 and aged 8 to 12, will be organised around friendship groups to facilitate an unthreatening atmosphere. In other focus groups, teachers will be asked about the changes they have observed in children’s safety knowledge and behaviours at school during the period of the safety programs. Parent focus groups will be asked about the changes they have observed in their children’s safety knowledge and behaviours at home and outside school.

Based on the findings from this phase of research, approximately 1,000 children across the schools will be sent a questionnaire aimed at identifying changes in their behaviour as a result of the safety programs. A final phase of the project will examine whether the changes identified are sustained after six and 12 months.

K.I.D.S.'s Foundation programs are in their infancy and the next three years is an opportune stage for investigation of such approaches. If shown to be effective, they could be developed into a model for adoption more broadly. Other Australian States are considering adopting the model, making this evaluation timely and of fundamental importance. Prior to the broader introduction of such programs, it is imperative that a strong conceptual framework based on empirical data is developed, to inform best practice in the area of child safety and risk management training in ways that can be embedded within mainstream education and learning.

The project is being conducted by Susie O’Neill, Founder of K.I.D.S , under the supervision of Dr Janette Ryan, a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, and Professor Joan Ozanne-Smith of the Monash University Accident Research Centre.


Arnold, R. & Ryan, M. (2003), The transformative capacity of new learning. Bundoora: Australian Council of Deans of Education.

Australian Council of Deans of Education (2001), New learning: A charter for Australian education. Canberra: ACDE

Australian Council of Deans of Education (2004), New teaching, New learning: A vision for Australian education. Canberra: ACDE.

Cambourne, B. (1988), The whole story: Natural learning and the acquisition of literacy in the classroom. Sydney: Ashton Scholastic.

Candy, P. (1991), Self-direction for lifelong learning: A comprehensive guide to theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M. (Eds.) (2000), Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures. London: Routledge. Chapter 6: Changing the role of schools.

Green, J. & Hart, L. (1998), "Children’s views of accident risks and prevention: A qualitative study", Injury Prevention (4) 14-21.

Krause, K., Bochner, S. & Duchesne, S. (2003), Educational psychology for learning and teaching. Southbank Victoria: Thompson.

McInerney, D. & McInerney, V. (2002), Educational psychology: Constructing learning. Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearsons Educational.

Robbé, F. (2004), Designing for delight: Creative playground solutions, no matter what! Paper presented at the Kidsafe National Playground Conference, 22-24 March, 2004, Sydney. 


Subject Headings

Educational planning
Primary education