How do you tell pre-verbal children about dangers given that they do not understand explanations?

“How do you tell pre-verbal children about dangers given that they do not understand explanations?”

“You assume that even young children are as aware of danger as adults. Even if you talk to them, they may still wander out in the street to play.”

No I do not assume that. Children are not born knowing about the danger of busy roads. So we parents have to find ways to convey that needed information right from the time our babies start crawling, if not before. And obviously, merely explaining in words about mass and speed and momentum etc is not going to give a pre-verbal crawling baby the necessary information.

It may take some effort to convey the information, but even the youngest just-crawling pre-verbal children can understand. When my children were babies we lived in London with extremely busy roads, so I do understand how scary it can be for parents. And given just how dangerous busy roads are for young children unaware of the danger, it seems vital to make the effort to find ways to give our crawling babies the sort of information that will keep them safe, in ways that they can understand.

How can they understand if they are pre-verbal? We have to be creative and come up with concrete ways of conveying the information, rather than just giving explicit explanations. (I suggest both.)

Here are some ideas for how to convey to pre-verbal very young children the danger of the street. (No doubt you yourself have better ideas! Do share in the comments!)

Give them an empty coke tin can to feel, to try to flatten or even just dent, then show them what happens when a car drives slowly over it. With older children, ask them to try to flatten it. This gives them inexplicit knowledge about the mass and power of a car, even if they do not have the explicit language to understand a high level explicit explanation.

Invite a child to try to prevent a stationary car from moving, as the driver gently starts moving the car forward. Experiencing having no noticeable effect whatsoever on the car starting to move refutes the children’s theory that they could have some effect on it.

Show them run-over birds/animals, whether on the road in real life, or on videos on the internet.

Invite them to notice how it feels, physically, when we are on the side of the road and a lorry zooms by: even though it is only air that is touching us, we can be physically moved by the air as a result of the passing lorry, and we can physically feel the ground under our feet being affected too.

Before my babies were even crawling, I was doing things like taking them to one end of a long quiet road, and counting down the seconds from when a vehicle first appeared at the other end of the road, to when it reached our end of the road, and counting down the seconds it takes to cross the road. And showing them the differences between fast roads and slow roads. And showing them how little time there is on short roads or blind corners, etc. With older young children you can play games involving predicting the number of seconds it will take for a vehicle to reach us from the other end of the road, counting the seconds between noticing a car coming and it arriving, and seeing whose prediction was closest to the reality. (And noticing that some cars are driven much faster than others, another important piece of information!)

There used to be government adverts on British television which show what happens when a car travelling at 30 miles per hour hits something. No doubt you can find such videos on the internet now. There must be all sorts of fun creative concrete ways of demonstrating the danger from the momentum of the car.

I am not saying this is necessarily effortless (though personally I found it fun and interesting!), but it is well worth doing, for its greater safety value if nothing else.

It is a mistake to think that because pre-verbal children lack the language to understand explicit explanations, it is impossible to take them seriously, and coercion is thus needed. In fact, such a stance is more dangerous for the children. Children whose parents rely on rules and coercion to get them to stay off the road may forget the rule when there is no parent around to enforce it. The child who understands the danger (whether or not they have the explanations in words) has internalised the information and is no more likely to do something stupid than an adult would.

Pre-verbal children taken seriously have no reason not to listen to their parents, unlike children whose parents rely on rules and coercion to keep them safe. If the coercionist parent presents the children with yet another rule, being very young children, they may see no reason for it, and react against it. Their experience of it, and their possibly unconscious theory about it, may be that there is no difference between this instance of parental thwarting and all the other instances of parental thwarting that (to the child) were definitely not in their best interests, so they may discount the vital safety information their coercionist parents are trying to give them. How are they to know which things we are telling them are really in their interests, and which are just more coercion that is not in their best interests?

Conversely, if we are taking our pre-verbal toddlers seriously as best we can, it is much less likely that they will have the feeling that we are always stopping them doing interesting, fun things; so when we do say, for instance, that the road is a very dangerous place to play, and that it would be much safer to play in the garden or on the pavement instead, even if we have not explained it as well as we might, the children are more likely to listen to us. But I definitely would not rely on just saying that the street is dangerous. That really is not enough to convey the needed information that will actually keep our children safe.

P.S. See also Vivek’s important comment below.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2023, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘How do you tell pre-verbal children about dangers given that they do not understand explanations?’,

2 thoughts on “How do you tell pre-verbal children about dangers given that they do not understand explanations?”

  1. I love all of these ways of experimenting and exploring physics and safety with kids! One thing I might add is to make sure our aim isn’t to inspire fear, but to inform and help kids come to their own realizations. It can be easy for folks who are used to operating from fear to think “I’m showing them the crushing of the can so that they’ll be afraid to go into the street.” I certainly know that’s not your intent, but it’s hard for folks who have never operated from a different mindset to see another way!


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