Three-year-old Daniel Son pushed a toy fire truck out of its plastic fire station and started to screech like a siren: "Yie YIE yie YIE." Nearby, Kami Hessinger, 4, rolled on the floor with her hands covering her face until a red paper "flame" taped to her dress came loose and a bystander told her the "fire" was out.
In the next room Jayne Kennedy, 4 1/2, was being told her house was on fire and filled with smoke. Jayne fell to the ground and crawled under the "smoke" -- portrayed by a gray sheet -- and ran to a safe place outside the "house."
The games had a purpose: The children are participants in a preschool fire safety curriculum being developed at the University of Maryland's Center for Young Children, a laboratory preschool at the College Park campus. The organizers hope it can be used nationally to help prevent injuries to preschoolers, who are among the most vulnerable to fire.
In Maryland, the highest percentage of persons who died from fire injuries in 1985 were children under the age of 6, according to the Maryland state fire marshal's office. Children ages 3 to 5 make up 4.2 percent of the U.S. population, but accounted for an average of 9.8 percent of civilian fire deaths from 1978-82, the National Fire Incident Reporting System reported.
Sallie Tinney, a teacher at the center, Cynde Mutryn, a former teacher, and Robert Ryan, assistant director of environmental safety at the university campus, are organizers of the Maryland Preschool Fire Safety/Burn Prevention Education Program. The state fire marshal's office and the Maryland Community Association for the Education of Young Children have channeled a $25,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Administration to the program.
"There's hardly anything on fire safety available for preschool children 3 to 5 years old," Ryan said. Tinney said the two major programs offered nationally on fire safety, the "Learn Not to Burn" campaign sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association and a program developed by the creators of the "Sesame Street" television program, are not geared for preschools.
Tinney said the organizers hope the Maryland program will be circulated nationally for use in schools, fire departments and community organizations.
The eight-day program for preschoolers is also aimed at educating parents in fire safety, Tinney said.
"We're trying to teach children to go home and bug their parents to test their smoke detectors and develop a meeting place outside the home for the family to go if the house is on fire," Tinney said.
Gale Labovitz, a teacher at the center, sent paper "flames" home with her 3-year-old students so they could teach their parents the "stop, drop and roll" technique for dousing flames on their clothing.
"The tendency with children and adults when they catch on fire is to run," Tinney said.
Another goal of the program is to better acquaint children with firefighters, Ryan said. "Children are often scared of firefighters. They walk in with their masks and all the equipment on and they look like Darth Vadar," Ryan said.
Ryan, a former firefighter, spent a day at the center demonstrating fire equipment. The children also donned firefighter jackets, masks and helmets, played with miniature firefighting tools and constructed helmets and hoses.
Among children 5 and under who were killed in fires in the United States between 1978 and 1982, one-third died in fires that began when they were playing, mostly with matches and lighters, Fire Journal reported recently.
To teach children the dangers of matches, Tinney and other teachers hid mock matches around the center. The children were told not touch the matches when they found them, but to tell a teacher of their location instead.
Tinney said no actual fire, smoke or matches are used in the program.
"We try to make the fire situations as real as possible without risking the children's safety so that if they are faced with a fire, they know what to do rather than panic. And studies have shown that early childhood education works."
During the progam, the children also cut out magazine pictures of hot and cold items, put together firefighting puzzles and made fire trucks out of egg cartons.
"This has been a very exciting week for them," said teacher Brent McBride. "I think the children realize the importance of these concepts. Usually, they have a hard time" paying attention to presentations, but "this week, they sat quietly and stared.
Four-year-old Kenneth Yang made a playhouse and added make-believe flames to the roof. Sung Cha, a student teacher, pushed a just-completed model of a firefighter to the door of the house.
"Hurry and make a mask," Kenneth ordered, looking concerned. "There is too much fire."