When Can Kids Walk to School Alone?

30 Jul 2019

Know if your child is ready to start walking to school without you.

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 kids should be before they walk school on their own. Who makes that call? It can be anxiety-inducing to even think about your (growing) babies walking around without supervision.

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.

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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 programme 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 footpaths 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 footpaths, the type of neighbourhood 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" she says. "I don't put an actual age on things. I figure you know your kid and your neighbourhood. 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 the age of 10 cross the street alone.
  • Teach your child to recognise 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-travelled streets, use the same route every day and avoid shortcuts through wooded areas, carparks 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 at pedestrian crossings; 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. 
  • Be vigilante and obey the traffic lights. 
  • Switch direction or cross the street if they thinks someone is following them or if they feel unsafe. Walk toward an open shop, 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 shop assistant, policeman, teacher, neighbour, or another mom with small children." These are good strangers.

You may also want to consider getting them mobile phones for emergencies and teaching them about how to use the emergency number. It's better to be safe than sorry. You should 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, organise a Walking School Bus. This is when a group of children walk to school together with one or more adults. 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!

Heather Buen is a writer and single mom in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas.

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