A centre in Buckinghamshire prepares children for real-life emergencies by showing them strategies and procedures in simulated situations. Carolyn O'Grady reports
During a scary two hours in late September, pupils from Loughton Middle School in Milton Keynes escaped from a burning house, witnessed a road crash, called 999 to report a girl drowning and put their friends in the recovery position after an accident. Oddly, they appeared to enjoy their various "emergencies". In fact, that's the idea.
The 60 Year 6 pupils were visiting Hazard Alley, part of the Safety Centre in Milton Keynes, where children learn about the hazards of the modern world by experiencing them as realistically as they safely can. The centre is a registered charity which involves the local police, fire and rescue service and statutory and private sector bodies. Its aim is "to teach children the everyday safety messages," explains deputy director Jan Alder.
"We also want to encourage them to take responsibility for their own actions and to realise that they are part of the wider community," she adds, referring particularly to some new experiences at the centre on the themes of shop theft and vandalism. In a hangar-like room, children move in groups through 12 very realistic scenarios.
In a typical child's bedroom, for example, one of the many volunteer guides talks about fire hazards, emphasising the importance of fire alarms and what to do if their house is on fire. Don't open the door without checking whether it is hot, and do shout for help, she tells them. Then the alarm goes off, smoke begins to come under the door and the children make for the exit, shouting as they go.
Elsewhere, pupils visit a sitting room to spot the many dangers to young children, including hot coffee within reach and a water container placed close to an electrical gadget. They sit next to a pond where a child is in difficulties and discuss how they might help her without endangering themselves. The emphasis is on getting the children to think for themselves, and a recurring message is: don't put yourself in danger, there are alternatives.
At intervals, children are sent off to phone the emergency services (a volunteer in a room upstairs), to see how well they can answer questions about what has happened and where - whether it be a road accident, the child in the pond or the house fire.
There is also a shop where children discuss shop theft and a video on the consequences of vandalism. The messages are reinforced when children find a phone booth that has been vandalised and a buoyancy aid missing from its place near the pond. Children are counselled to say "no" to bullies who try to make them steal and to talk to adults about bullying.
Other sites include a farm, a railtrack, a building site, a petrol station; there is also an extremely dismal and authentically smelly dark alley.
The day was certainly an eye-opener for many pupils. "It was a good experience," says 11-year-old Bradley. "I really enjoyed learning to do the recovery position, and to get out of a room safely. I felt proud of myself when I talked to the 999 operator."
"Safety education is as important as maths and science, but schools often don't have time, and in society, organisations often leave it to someone else, and it doesn't get done," says centre director John Simmonite. It is the Safety Centre's aim to fill that gap.
* The two-hour tour is aimed mainly at key stage 2 children, but bookings are accepted for children of other ages.
The tour is free to Milton Keynes schools, pound;4.50 per child for other schools in Buckinghamshire and pound;5.50 for schools elsewhere. Teachers and other adults are free. Two follow-up sessions are offered.
On the map
Safety Centre (Milton Keynes) 18 Carters Lane, Kiln Farm, Milton Keynes MK11 3ES.
Tel: 01908 263009 www.safetycentre.co.uk