I distinctly remember bringing my firstborn baby home from hospital for the first time. My husband drove slow (too slow) that day. The heavy burden to care for this new life was overwhelming. Fast-forward 13 years and that little bub is now a teen and the bulk of our work educating her on road safety is done. The next phase will be where she will learn the road rules for herself…as a driver, but not yet…
I’ve broken how I aim to teach my children in four general stages. These are my own thoughts and ideas based on my own parenting experiences and what I’ve learned and applied from experts.
To give this perspective, my children are currently aged 6, 8, 10 and 13.
Key things I’ve learned
Below are key things I’ve learned that help me navigate teaching road safety to my children:
- Research suggests that children do not develop depth perception, scanning ability or the capacity to assess vehicle speed needed to judge traffic correctly until age 11. 1 While children aged around 7-8 begin to adopt these skills, overall search skills become developed around 10-11 years of age.2
- Children between the age of 5 and 7, while possessing a wide understanding of danger, can be distracted by what they are doing. This can result in impulsive behaviour, like running for a ball and so they may not be aware of the dangers of the road in that moment.3, 4
- It takes time, maturity and practice to develop attention switching and concentration skills when it comes to road safety.5, 6
- Consistency is key. When I say consistency, I’m thinking hundreds of hundreds of teaching opportunities over years and years.
- Formal education about road safety is important. However, as a parent, making road safety and general awareness a normal part of life and conversations the way to go. I look for natural opportunities to teach my children these types of skills.
Stage One: 0-5 years
This is the stage I found most challenging because toddlers and very young children don’t see the dangers and yet they just want to do everything. It’s a crucial age for learning and so much groundwork can be achieved to build on as the child matures.
Correct child car restraints
Over the years this has changed, so I keep updated on the current information.
Talk About Road Signs/Rules
Often this is led by the children’s own curiosity. What’s that sign? What does that mean? Sometime I instigate and we talk about what we can see or the light colours and things like that.
Hold Hands when Crossing the Road
Always hold hands when crossing the road. It doesn’t matter if there are cars coming or not. At one point, I had 4 children under 6 years of age. When crossing roads, I either had a double pram with me for the baby and toddler, and then the other children would hold each side of the pram and I would place my hand on their hands as I pushed the pram. Other times the baby would be in the carrier on my person and I would hold the two youngest children’s hand and my eldest would grab on to my clothes somewhere so we were all together.
Use your senses
“Stop, look both ways and think” is great. I encourage my children to use all of their senses in crucial situations. What can you hear? I can hear a car sound from around that corner. Oh! And there you go! Here comes a car. What can you feel? Vibrations on the road; how strong the wind is; the feel of the car when it passes. I smell a cattle truck. All of the senses can be used for our pleasure, learning, and our safety.
The parent controls the seatbelts at this stage but there is still an opportunity to explain why seat belts are important and how they keep us safe on the road.
Check seat belts
Regularly check seat belts. I know there have been times when one of the older children have accidently unclicked the younger child’s belt restraint without realising (the regular seat belt that goes through the back).
Get in/out on curb side
Get the children in or out on the curb side of the car, away from the traffic.
Never leave children unsupervised in the car
This is an obvious one, but I also don’t allow my kids to play in the car while it was in the driveway where they could accidentally knock the hand break or lock themselves in.
Walk on the footpath
My son went through a stage of wanting to walk on the curb near the gutter. My mother’s eye saw him falling on the road into an approaching car! I can’t help but see the potential dangers everywhere! When there is a footpath, walk on the footpath, and when there is not, walk away from the edge of the road.
I teach my children not to be lured into any unknown car. This scenario is very unlikely but it forms a small part of educating my children about personal safety. This is not to instil fear but to equip my children. One way to do this is by telling a social story or giving an example. For example: If an unknown person pulls up in a car in the driveway and Mum is inside, and they call out to you, “Can I get some directions from you?” or “Would you like a Lolly?” come immediately inside and tell mum. Do not go near or inside an unknown car.
When they don’t want to follow the rules
I think consistency (and persistence AND PATIENCE) is key here. There was a small window (and I reiterate from my perspective looking back: a small window – even though it can seem long at the time) when my children would want, for example, to cross the road on their own. However, young children are not able to assess all the dangers around them and so I had a blanket rule that my children were required to hold my hand to cross the road.
When I was faced with a challenge (aka a stubborn little person for whatever reason) I tried many different things, for example: Making it fun: saying in a sing-song voice “Come on, let’s go across the road! Hold my hand and….let’s go!” I wish it was that easy all of the time but I found toddlers to be random in behaviour. Sometimes, if my kids refused to hold my hand, I would first wait and say we couldn’t cross the road until they held my hand, giving them a chance to make the choice and praising for positive behaviour. Another approach I would sometimes use is to pick the child up and carry them across the road (them loosing the freedom of walking themselves) or we would just go home from our excursion. I’m not suggesting this is the correct or only way to do it, but those are some of the ways I handed the situation and consistency does works.
At this young age, I gave my children a lot of freedom in safe places to run around like crazy, but when near a road, there were some rules I was consistent about it for their own good. Having a few children close together also meant I needed to have strict rules to make it safe for everyone…and so we could still get out and enjoy outings.
Even if the children didn’t fully understand, I would often explain briefly why these rules are in place. One: so I made it a habit for myself. Two: because I see a lot of value in talking to kids about normal stuff. Three: because over time it connects rules with reason, which is vital because rules for rules sake is pointless.
I found these years of parenting in general the most difficult as my husband and I established a safe, fun and loving environment for our children to shine.
Stage Two: 5-12 years
This stage was easier because it’s more about reinforcing and extending awareness. There is a huge understanding and ability variation between these years, however below are some general concepts my husband and I built on and reinforced from the first stage:
Always look up driveways and entryways – of private residents, businesses, petrol stations and shopping centres – when walking along the footpath. Also look for traffic from the road entering the driveway. So even when you’re on a footpath, you still need to be road-aware.
Hold hands to cross road
Still holding hands to cross the road, especially for my younger ones in this age group.
Look for safe places to cross
When crossing the road, look for safe places to cross like a safety island, pedestrian crossing and lights with pedestrian access.
Always look (again) before you cross at lights
There have been quite a few times when I have been almost cleaned up at a pedestrian light crossing by a car going through a red light. I teach my kids to always (always!) look before they cross in these situations, even though the green pedestrian light means they have right of way. It’s important for them to make it a habit to quickly check before they step out on the road at the green pedestrian light.
Every afternoon we navigate the busy school car park. My younger children still hold my hands in these situations, however to my older children, I usually give a cue like, “Heads up!” which they know means, “Right, girls, we are crossing the car park now. Be aware of what is around you and walk with me.” In this, I aim to help them learn and practice attention switching and concentrations skills in terms of road safety as they mature.
I teach the kids that when a car is reversing, the lights turn white, which gives an indication that the vehicle is preparing to back up so stay well away. Another clue is the red brake light that drivers often have on when they start the car, before preparing to move.
This is a big one for this age. When the kids were young, they were unable to unstrap themselves. In this next stage, there is a risk of kids unstrapping themselves and swinging the door open into other cars. There are a few ways we combat this in our family. Firstly, the kids know which side to get out of if we are on the side of the road: the curb side (taught in the first stage). However, in a car park, the kids wait before opening the car until I give the okay. Sometimes there is a lot of room in-between cars and sometimes it’s close. In our case, I will get the older children to get out first and then open the door for the younger children to get out, or I do it.
It is just taking a little extra time to be aware of the situation so we don’t do damage to other people’s property or to ourselves.
From a parked car. Where is it safe? Where is the footpath or curb?
This seems quite obvious, but it’s something I have found necessary to reinforce to my kids when getting out of the car, say, at a shopping centre. When getting out of the car, look for the safest spot. For example: if I park near where there is direct access to the footpath of the shopping centre front, my kids know to get out of the car and walk directly there. As a parent, I will assess the situation when I drive somewhere and give instruction accordingly. Sometimes there is no safe place to go when getting out of the car and so we all hold hands and walk together.
Bikes, scooters and skateboards
This is a stage where our family enjoys outings involving wheeled contraptions. We take a new level of safety precautions to reinforce road safety and general awareness. For example, keeping to the left of the path.
We more in depth conversations about road rules in general as opportunities arise. For example, keeping to the left or giving way to the right, etc.
As the children get older, the importance that I model what I ask is ever more apparent.
Stage Three: 12-16 years
I’ve only just entered this stage myself, and there is much less teaching and more of attaching life lessons to stuff already learned. To my teen, I will say things like, “Never become complacent” about road safety just to reiterate how it’s important to be aware.
By this stage and beyond, these are some key skills I trust my children will have learned:
- Able to choose the safest places to walk
- Knows rules about crossing road safely
- Able to attention switch from one activity or distraction (like talking with friends or an electronic device) to focus traffic situations.
- Concentrate intently while crossing the road (without being distracted)
Stage Four: 16+
This is next for me! It involves the child learning to drive and being responsible with a vehicle. As a parent, I will still have a large part to play. However much of the learning will be led by my child and from external sources, for example the Learners Exams and driving lessons. I see my part as a facilitator and supervisor as they apply what they learn.
The lists get shorter and shorter as my children enter adulthood where they will be fully responsible for themselves and their safety.
Although much of this is about road safety, it’s actually not. I aim to teach my kids to be confident by using their senses, judgement, common sense, conviction, intuition and education to make critical decisions in everyday life. This will enable them to keep themselves safe – sure – but these skills are also imperative for them to enjoy and gain satisfaction from the world around them!
1. Foot, H., Thomson, J., Tolmie, A., Whelan, K., Morrison, S., & Sarvary, P. (2006). Children’s understanding of drivers’ intentions. British Journal of Developmental Phycology, 24, 681-700
2. Whitebread D, Neilson K. (1998) Cognitive and metacognitive processes (1999) Report No. 06. Department of Transport, UK. www.dft.gov.uk
3. David S.J, Foot H.C, Chapman A.J. and Sheehy N.P. (1986) Peripheral vision and the aetiology of child pedestrian accidents. British Journal of Psychology, 77, 117- 135.
4. Thomson J.A, Ampofo Boateng K, Lee D.N, Grieve R, Pitcairn T.K, and Demetre J.D. (1998) The effectiveness of parents in promoting the development of road crossing skills in young children. British Journal of Educational Psychology
5. Demetre, J., Lee, D, Grieve, R., Pitcairn, T., et al. (1993). Young children’s learning on road-crossing simulations. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 63(2), 348–358.
6. Thomson, J., (2006). Applied Spatial Cognition: From Research to Cognitive Technology (G. L. Allen, Ed.). London: Routledge.