Carolyn O'Grady visits an imaginative scheme for helping children to avoid injury and danger. Safety, whether in the home or on the street, is a hard thing to teach. Do you shock children with videos of victims of fire and poisonings? Do you lecture them on the dangers of going off with strangers? Do you encourage them to read cautionary tales, or attempt to instil safe behaviour through role-plays? Most primary schools adopt all these approaches and more.
But what is often lacking is a more concrete context in which children can explore the dangers while remaining safe.
What was needed, decided Dudley health and education authorities, was a model town, a sort of Toy Town but not so twee, in which children could move around and meet people who could help them.
The idea came from Rotarian Stan Harding, who had seen something similar but less ambitious on a visit to Texas. Four years ago, after discussions with the two Dudley departments, it was agreed that the Rotary Club would fund the Pounds 12,000 building of a giant model town which could be used at Saltwells Education Development Centre in Dudley for sessions with schools in the area.
It is now established as an important part of the authority's health-promoting schools initiative which, says Joyce Hodgetts, inspector for whole-school issues, "encourages schools to build in health promotion as an integral part of the curriculum".
The upkeep of the "town", the schools' costs, the expense of erecting and transporting it and any other costs are met by the authority. When not in use, the town can be let out to other authorities in exchange for a donation to the Rotary Club.
Dudley organises two fortnight-long sessions for its primary schools with two schools a day taking part: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. This month one school to undergo the experience was the Church of the Ascension Primary School in Dudley.
After an introduction from Heather Jenkins, advisory teacher for health education, the five to seven - year - olds were split into groups of six or seven for the two-hour session. Walking under an arch across which is written "SafetyTown", they arr- ive at a crossroads with huge hardboard panels on which shops are painted. There are pavements, a zebra crossing, a lollipop lady and a crossing with lights.
But Safety Town is not just about road safety. Behind the hardboard facade are a "police station", "fire station", "living room" and other places where children meet with fire officers, nurses and various personnel. About 16 volunteers from different services give their support to Safety Town for all the sessions.
Children move from one setting to another, learning something about pavement discipline and negotiating the roads in between with the help of a road safety officer or in one case a lollipop lady.
For the group I accompanied the first port of call was the police station where WPC Flint explains her role and goes into stranger danger and what to do if you lose your Mum at the supermarket.
They move to a fire station where an ebullient fire officer shows how he keeps his yellow over-trousers round his boots, the quicker and easier to put them on when a fire occurs. He then goes on to discuss what children should do in the event of a fire in their house. "Your clothes are on fire what do you do?" This knowledgeable group show how they would "stop, drop and roll".
Outside in the street Jenny, a pupil, is asked to call the fire brigade from a telephone, while the others gather round the voice at the receiving end.
In the "doctor's surgery" a nurse explains the dangers of medicine and displays a board with lines of sweets and pills on it to show how similar they can look. She mentions the dangers of swallowing pen tops and putting things in your ear and explains how to ring an ambulance.
Across the road children are introduced to a safety officer's nightmare: a kitchen in which pills are left out, a plastic bag is on the floor; electricity and water are in close proximity and poisons are left unmarked and easily accessible. Children are asked to pick out and discuss the dangers.
Later the hazards of electricity are explained by a representative from Midlands Electricity and outside pupils are shown an electricity sub-station which has an inviting gap in its surrounding fence. At a garden pool how to play safe near water is discussed. Finally, the children are treated to a tour of an ambulance, where a crew member describes his work.
Each volunteer has a different style, but most try to make the experience as participative as possible and are gently encouraging rather than lecturing. Occasionally children look scared at what they are hearing or clutch at teachers, but on the whole they seem very interested and involved.
Teachers are pleased. No, they don't think it's too much of a catalogue of horrors. Parts reinforce each other and the total experience encourages a "keep safe" attitude to the whole of life, suggests one. "They go over the main points in different ways, so they are reinforced, and moving from place to place keeps up their interest."
The organisers, however, are aware that parents are part of the key to safety. One approach is to get the children to educate their parents. Groups are asked, for example, if they have a smoke alarm. If they don't, the fire officer suggests that they recommend their parents to get one. If parents keep poisonous substances in an accessible place, pupils are advised to bring this to their attention.
The pupils are also given a booklet to take home to work on with parents, but feedback so far suggests that this isn't very successful in drawing parents into a consideration of safety issues. "Children tend to just take it home and do the worksheets and colouring in on their own," says Heather Jenkins. She hopes to encourage parent involvement in other ways. The suggestion that parents could themselves visit Safety Town perhaps with their children showing them around is being considered. The authority is also producing a teachers' pack to use before and after the event.
And the results? Whether the visit contributes to fewer deaths and injuries may be impossible to gauge, says Joyce Hodgetts. However, comparison of questionnaires filled in before and after visits shows that children's knowledge of safety issues definitely improves.
Authorities wishing to rent Safety Town, should contact Saltwells Education Development Centre, Bowling Green Road, Dudley DY2 9LY.