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Add safety to your child's activity list

By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000


We take our children to soccer practice, ballet class, computer tutoring and music class. Some start as early as just a few months old. So a former St. Petersburg police officer decided, why not offer kids a class in something that could really affect their lives: safety?

The subject matter varies from fire and gun safety to being stranger-smart to the rules of the road. But Pati Gross' approach is the same each month -- drill safety into children's heads, make it fun and keep the messages on their level. Once a month at the St. Petersburg Main Library on Ninth Avenue and the Barnes & Noble book store on Tyrone Boulevard, the 12-year police force veteran offers a free 45-minute class.

"So many parents are afraid to talk about these kinds of things with their children," Gross told me. "They ignore it and think it will never happen to them. But children get empowered through knowledge."

Before she left the force in 1994, Gross taught safety in preschools using puppets. But she felt she could reach more children if she could publish safety books on their level.

"There were plenty of books talking to moms and dads about safety, but none talking to children," she said. "I checked the children's magazines and saw a lot of "preachy-teachy' stuff, but nothing children would want to learn from that would spark their creativity."

So she came up with a band of kangaroos including Reader, Romper, Risky and Reckless to illustrate the safe and unsafe way of doing things. She has written four books starring the kangaroos on home, fire and stranger safety, and one that teaches children what to do if they get lost.

Why kangaroos?

"I wanted something that resembled people and kangaroos are so similar," she said. "They stand and that was important. They come in all different colors -- red, orange, gray and browns." And they range in size from as small as a rat to 7 feet tall. And perhaps most importantly, they hop, they're fun, and kids think that pouch is really cool."

As for the classes, Gross thought it was the natural way to make a lasting impression. "Kids love to play house and play school, why not play safety?" she said.

In her stranger-smart class, Gross has children act out an encounter with a stranger. For the car and traffic safety class, kids operate remote control cars and play the role of their mom or dad. Gross then plays the child and constantly taps them on the shoulder asking for more juice, a different music tape, or she might beg to stop and get ice cream.

The aggravated children respond with: "Miss Pati, stop. I'm trying to drive the car," or "Leave me alone, you're going to make me crash."

They leave themselves open for Gross to tell them this is how Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa feel when they are making demands or being disruptive. "I tell them they can ask for something, but to do it in a quiet voice. We also talk about other car safety, how they should never play hide and seek in or around cars, not to throw anything in a car."

Whatever the topic, Gross always works on building self-esteem.

"Children who feel good about themselves are less likely to take a dare and less likely to get into trouble," she said. "A child who hangs his head down low is the type pedophiles look for. So self-esteem and self-respect go hand in hand with safety."

Gross also has teamed up with Maryann Harman, who teaches music classes for infants through pre schoolers, to write safety songs geared for children. My 3-year-old Olivia and I recently attended Gross's March class with the topic of fire safety. Olivia was one of about 10 children stopping, dropping and rolling to a tape of a fire safety song Harman sings just for them.

The children also watched as Gross layered clothes and equipment on a picture of a fireman, transforming him into a bulky, yellow mass with an oxygen mask and hose hanging from his face.

"Now he's a little scary-looking," she admitted to the group. But she told the children if they ever encountered a firefighter in his full costume not to be scared or run because they are there to help.

We played a game of putting stars or X-marks on pictures of things that are safe or unsafe such as lighters, beach balls, candles and grills. We also did a coloring game and sticker craft related to fire safety and equipment. Each month the children do some type of craft. Around Halloween they made glow-in-the dark designs to put on their costumes.

Olivia enjoyed the class and it kept her attention the whole time, though she did ask to go look for library books a few times toward the end. I think it would be hard for children under 3 to stay focused that long or really comprehend most of what Gross is teaching.

Most children are 4 to 7 years old, but there are some from 2 to 10. (Surprisingly, 2-year-olds have been known to call 911 and save parents' lives in emergencies.) Class size ranges from 10 to as many as 35 depending on the month. The stranger safety class, which is scheduled for May, always gets a big turnout.

I wasn't sure how much Olivia retained from the fire safety class until several days later when she was putting on a birthday party for her stuffed Tigger. She asked me for birthday candles and I handed her three to stick into a pretend cake. She ran back to her room, then came back a minute later with a very serious look.

"But what about the police lady?" she asked me.

"What about her?" I responded.

"Mommy, we put an X on the candles. She said never, ever, never play with candles."

Okay, not only did Olivia learn more than I thought, I learned less than I thought. I explained that the candles weren't lit so they weren't dangerous. But just to be on the safe side and avoid confusion, we decided to use crayons for Tigger's cake instead.

Gross teaches her class at the Tyrone Barnes & Noble book store the second Saturday of each month at 11 a.m. She's at St. Petersburg's main library at 3745 Ninth Ave. N the third Saturday of each month at 11 a.m.

-- Please share questions, comments or ideas with Rookie Mom by calling 822-7225 or e-mailing Oliviachar@aol.com.

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