Parents struggle with many things when it comes to the safety and security of their children. One scary question that a lot of parents face is how old children should be before they walk to school on their own. We’ve compiled some expert guidance to help you know when your child is ready to start walking to school without you.
There has been a huge drop in the number of kids who walk or bike to school regularly. According to Active Healthy Kids Canada, 58% of parents walked to school when they were young, only 28% of their children do today. Also, recent survey by Parachute Canada found that the majority of parents (75%) prevent their kids from walking or cycling to school due to fears over speeding cars and traffic.
Even if you live in a relatively safe neighborhood, it’s still anxiety-inducing to think about your (growing) babies walking around without supervision. We’ve gathered some expert tips and advice to help you make the call.
How young is too young?
The answer to the ‘walk to school’ question is not black and white, it depends on factors such as:
- The journey itself: Evaluate the distance to the school, the availability of pavements and street lights, the type of area (Do people look out for one another?), whether the roads are busy and the local street safety measures.
- Your child’s level of maturity: Consider your child’s ability to follow directions, be sensible and be streetwise. Do they know who and when to ask for help? Are they savvy about stranger danger?
Gavin De Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, and leading expert on predicting and managing violence says there is no magic age for when kids can walk or bike to school. It all comes down to cognitive skills, reasoning and the ability to follow directions. He suggests parents see if their child can pass the Test of Twelve. This particular test is more apt to assess a child’s readiness to stay home alone, but definitely applies to walking to and from school.
Yet other caveats exist on whether a child is ready to go to and from school. The Safe Routes to School Program recommends children under the age of 10 not to cross a street alone. But if your child’s route is less than a mile, a direct walk with sidewalks along the way and the only place to cross the street is via the crossing guard, this may not apply.
When you’re making the decision, evaluate the distance to the school, the availability of sidewalks, the type of neighborhood and the local street safety measures. Your child could walk to school as early as first grade if the route is easy—though walking with other friends or in a group may be a desired alternative. In general, the consensus seems to be that 5-year-olds are too young, 6- and 7-year-olds should walk in a group and that by age 10 most kids are ready.
Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, offers advice on allowing kids to manage things on their own—including walking to and from school without parental supervision. “I think kids can do whatever we did at their age, as crime is down since the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s,” she says. “I don’t put an actual age on things. I figure you know your kid and your neighborhood. What makes sense to you makes sense, period!”
How can you prepare your children?
Before your child heads off on their walk to school by themselves (or with friends), there are a few safety precautions you should take to:
- Never let a child under age ten cross the road alone.
- Traffic signals and pavement markings have done wonders to improve road safety for kids. Make sure your child can recognize and obey them all.
- Choose the safest route between home and school and practice walking it with your child until they can demonstrate traffic-safety awareness.
Remind your child to
- stick to well-traveled streets, use the same route every day and avoid shortcuts through wooded areas, car parks or alleyways.
- carry backpacks and bags close to their body, not dangling by the straps.
- put their purse or wallet in an inside coat or front trouser pocket, not a back pocket.
- don’t wear movement restricting shoes or clothing.
- cross streets only at safe points (i.e. at zebra crossings), never enter streets from between parked cars or from behind shrubbery.
- always look both ways before crossing the street. “Stop. Look. Listen. Live.”
- walk–don’t run–across crossings, and only when the man is green.
- switch direction or cross the street if they think someone is following them or if they feel unsafe. Walk towards an open shop, restaurant or yell for help.
- be aware of strangers. If a stranger approaches, tell a teacher, the head teacher or another trusted adult.
What is stranger danger?
This last point is particularly crucial. It is important to teach your children about good strangers as well as bad. While the general principle of ‘stranger danger’ is a good one, a child should be encouraged to speak to ‘good’ strangers (such as policemen, teachers, other parents with small children) if they need assistance or find themselves in a dangerous situation.
You may also want to consider getting them mobile phones for emergencies and teaching them about how to call 911. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Travel in groups to be less likely to be approached by stranger. Walk in public areas so people can see and hear you. It is also a good idea to teach your children that, in the event they are approached by a stranger, to yell and kick–whatever it takes to get away.
If you don’t think your child is ready to walk to school alone yet, you could organize a walking bus with other parents, rotating who’s on ‘bus duty’. This can be a fun compromise for your child and other children who live nearby.
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