When can kids walk to and from school alone?
Parents struggle with many things when it comes to the safety and security of our children. One scary question that a lot of parents face is how old kids should be before they walk to school on their own. Who makes that call? Although crime rates are down nationwide, it's still anxiety-inducing to think about your (growing) babies walking around without supervision.
There has been a huge drop in the number of kids who walk or bike to school regularly. According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, in 1969, 48 percent of K-8 grade students walked or bicycled to school. But by 2009, only 13 percent did.
But according to a 2012 report from Safe Kids USA, streets are actually getting safer for kids. The child pedestrian injury rates are down significantly since 1995 — mostly because of increased education to parents and better traffic infrastructure surrounding schools, such as sidewalks and crossing guards.
What does this mean for your children? When are they are ready?
How young is too young?
Gavin De Becker, author of "The Gift of Fear," and leading U.S. 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 cross a street alone. But if your child's route is less than a mile, it's 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.
How do you know your child is 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 kids?
Before your child heads off to school by themselves (or with friends), there are a few safety precautions you should take.
To avoid injury:
- Never let a child under age 10 cross the street alone.
- Teach your child to recognize and obey traffic signals and pavement markings.
- Choose the safest route between home and school and practice walking it with your child until he/she 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, parking lots or alleys.
- Carry backpacks and bags close to their body, not dangling by the straps.
- Put a wallet in an inside coat or front pants pocket, not a back pocket.
- Don't wear shoes or clothing that restrict movement.
- Cross streets only in crosswalks; never enter streets from between parked cars or from behind shrubbery.
- Always look both ways before crossing the street.
- Walk — don't run — across intersections. A flashing "walk" signal does not mean it's safe to cross.
- Switch direction or cross the street if they thinks someone is following them or if they feel unsafe. Walk toward an open store, restaurant or yell for help.
- Don't speak to strangers; if a stranger approaches, tell a teacher, a school principal or a trusted adult.
What is stranger danger?
That last point is particularly crucial. Teaching your children about strangers is an important part of the process. Dr. Polly Dunn, a psychiatrist, blogger at Child Pysch Mom and mother of four, says children need to know the difference between good and bad strangers. While we often focus on bad strangers, there are also good strangers.
If your child needs assistance, Dr. Dunn says that they should be aware that, "they can ask for help from another adult that that they know, a store clerk, policeman, teacher, neighbor or another mom with small children." These are good strangers.
You may also want to consider getting them cell phones for emergencies and teaching them about how to use 911. Adam Fowler, a patrol officer for the Lafayette Police Department in Colorado, says "Hopefully, depending on the age, most kids have cell phones now. Call 911. It's better to be safe than sorry. Travel in groups to be less likely to be contacted by stranger. Walk in public areas so people can see and hear you." Fowler also says to teach your kids that, in the event they are contacted by a stranger, to "yell, kick and scream, whatever it takes to get away."
If you don't think your child's ready to walk to school alone yet, organize a Walking School Bus. It can be a fun compromise for your child and other kids who live nearby. You can also find part time sitters who will help with the morning rush and getting the kids on the bus!
Read next: 10 options for after-school child care
Heather Buen is a writer and single mom in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas. Her work can be found here.