University of Illinois Extension

Developmental Stages of Children and Accident Risk Potential

Farm accidents often occur because the children experience situations that they are not capable of handling either physically or cognitively. The following is a discussion by age groups of some of the general characteristics of children as it relates to accident risk potential in farm environments.

Birth to 3 years

Very young children are naturally curious. They learn about the world by physically interacting with the things around them. They like to touch, feel, and explore. They also learn about properties of things by putting them in their mouths. A very young child will drink anything, be attracted to moving objects and objects that make interesting noises, and crawl into small spaces. And, because they are just beginning to learn to control their bodies, they can easily trip or fall.

As a result of these characteristics, they are at high risk for accidents due to choking, drowning, poisoning, and fires. Often there is constant noise and moving objects that range from tractors, to various revolving shafts, belts, rollers, cutting bars and so on around farms would intrigue most children of this age. This natural tendency to explore the world around them combined with their inability to recognize danger and to inhibit their actions can put young children at high risk of injury. Thus, children in this age group need strict supervision around farm environments.

4 to 6 years

During the preschool and early school years, children continue to learn about the world primarily through interacting with the environment physically. By around 4 years, children become less likely to put things in their mouths. However, they continue to feel, touch, and explore their world with little thought to danger.

Although children begin to develop some self-control during this period, they do not easily recognize dangerous situations and often do not have sufficient knowledge or control of their bodies to avoid danger. For example, they may go too close to moving machinery because they do not realize what aspects of the machinery are dangerous. And if they do finally recognize danger, they may not have sufficient control of their muscles to react and get away quickly. They also tend to become caught up in their own actions and pay little attention to the larger world around them. For example, in the excitement of play, they may not notice that they are running close to farm machinery, large animals, or other dangers. They may also easily equate observing a parent handling farm animals with pets. As a result, children of this age still need constant supervision.

7 to 9 years

During the elementary school years children begin to recognize common dangers that they have personally experienced in the past. For example, a fall from a tree may lead to their being somewhat careful in climbing trees in the future. However, they do not easily generalize from one situation to another. As a result, falling from a tree may not cause them to avoid climbing on a tractor or a ladder on the side of a grain bin. In addition, children of this age continue to act before they think, especially when involved in play. As a result, they can easily get to near dangerous situations without recognizing the danger.

They also are beginning to ask to be included in the work done by adults. However, because they have little knowledge of the requirements of a task or their own physical and mental limitations, the risk of injury is very high. They do not recognize dangerous situations fast enough to avoid them, and once in an emergency situation they do not have the problem solving abilities to avoid injury. Unfortunately, these limitations in their thinking abilities are often not evident to many parents until their child experiences an accident.

10 to 15 years

By the later elementary school years children are beginning to develop physically. Many are now big enough to take on adult tasks such as operating farm machinery or mowing the lawn. Because they want to considered grown-up, they often pressure parents to let them take on responsibility they are not ready to handle. Furthermore, children of this age increasingly give parents the impression that they know how to perform the task. They can follow simple operating procedures and are better able to tell parents what they would do if a problem arose. However, parents should not be misguided into thinking children this age are ready to handle emergency situations. Research has shown that they often cannot apply knowledge in actual stressful situations. They are not cognitively able to process information quickly enough to get out of danger many times.

Two other problems beginning to emerge at this age. Strong peer pressure abound during the pre-teen and early teen years. Kids will often show off or dare one another around their friends. Furthermore, they tend to have a very weak perceptions of risk taking. They do not believe that anything can happen to them or they do not have a good perception of their own mortality. Thus, they often are not capable of safely handling complex operational activities, such as driving a tractor. True, they may get by without experiencing an accident. But they are very vulnerable, particularly, in high stress or unusual circumstances that could develop when operating farm equipment.

Within this age group children are normally undergoing significant physical and psychosocial maturation as they move from childhood to adulthood. Teenagers tend to be very high risk takers. As stated by Molly (1987): Research indicates that young people perceive and assess risk differently than adults do. Teenagers tend to believe that the benefits of risky actions outweigh their costs. This makes teenagers extremely vulnerable to injuries that result from risk taking behavior. In addition, adolescents often regard their thoughts and feelings as unique or special and sometimes develop feelings of immortality. This sense of immortality, combined with the need for experimentation and peer group pressure, can lead to risk- taking behavior. For these reasons children in this age group need to have a good understanding of the accident risk around the farm. They also need to be closely supervised when performing new farm work task. Training should be such that they are allowed to develop their skills slowly so that they can adapt and thoroughly learn new tasks. This is particularly important when learning to operate new farm equipment.


Farm related accidents involving children has long been considered a serious problem in the United States. The results of a study of farm machinery safety child behaviors and accident experience among a population of U.S. farm families is reported. Developmental stages of children as it relates to their accident risk potential is presented.

Robert A. Aherin, Ph.D
Extension Safety Specialist
University of Illinois

Christine M. Todd, Ph.D
Child Development Specialist
University of Illinois

*A portion of the paper for presentation at the 1989 International Winter Meeting of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers.