Author(s): Amy LeBeau. Published on January 1, 2012.

Kid Stuff
New + updated materials for teaching fire safety to a challenging group: preschoolers

NFPA Journal, January/February 2012

A few weeks ago, the Public Education Division received an email from a co-worker about her three-year-old grandson:


NFPA Communications Manager Amy Lebeau demonstrates how to play "Sparky's Match Game" which teaches children how to identify the sound of a smoke alarm.

My grandson came home from preschool a couple of weeks ago and said to his mother, "Mom, do you know what to do if the house is on fire?" She said, "Yes, you get out of the house!" He looked at her wide-eyed and said, "No! You get down on the floor and you roll out the door!"

Your first reaction might be to laugh — from the mouths of babes, as they say. For public safety educators, though, identifying the age group you want to reach and knowing the learning capabilities of that group are crucial for your success. The little boy’s understanding of what to do in the event of a fire underscores the fact that children five and under need different fire safety messaging and materials than older children.

According to Sharon Gamache, program director for NFPA’s Public Education Division, preschoolers don’t understand "if-then" situations; young children need to act out different scenarios. For example, if preschoolers only learn "stop, drop, and roll," they are likely to use that behavior for every fire, whether it is appropriate or not.

There are a few things to remember when dealing with young children: Make the learning active and participatory; keep the lessons short, but repeat them to reinforce the key concepts; and check on how well the children remember what they learned. This is particularly important if you are teaching two different behaviors in combination, such as "get low and go" or "stop, drop, and roll."



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Preschool-age children are at greater risk for home fire deaths and burns. As a group, their fire death risk is about one and a half times the national average. At the same time, their developmental capabilities make learning about fire safety particularly challenging. Fire safety education is always done with the best intentions, but if we do not understand how preschoolers learn, we might be doing them more harm than good.

According to a study done by Oklahoma State University, children can be expected to understand and use fire safety messages only when they have achieved the necessary physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional milestones. The better we understand the capabilities of children, the greater the likelihood that a fire safety program will be successful.

NFPA has spent a great deal of time researching and developing programs and materials that are age-appropriate. The Learn Not to Burn® Preschool Program, which was developed in 1991, is currently being updated with a new look. You can find new lesson plans, songs, flash cards, activity sheets, and home link activities that go home to parents and caregivers. These materials are available free at, and new lessons will be posted throughout the year.

To help you reinforce the messages you’re teaching, NFPA teamed up with WGBH Kids Interactive to create an online game for preschoolers. Sparky’s Match Game, available at, introduces kids ages three to five to what a smoke alarm looks and sounds like, and what they should do when they hear one.

And if you’re wondering about the little boy who’s planning to roll out the door in the event of a fire, don’t worry — his grandmother spent some time teaching him what to do. He can now tell you that if the smoke alarm sounds, the thing to do is get out and stay out.

Amy Lebeau is project manager for NFPA’s Public Education Division.