When can kids walk themselves to school?
© 2013 Roy Benaroch, MD
It’s back-to-school time! Now that your kids are a year older, is this the right time for them to walk themselves to school?
The highest risk group for pedestrian versus vehicle accidents is in the 5-9 year age group, with boys having far more accidents than girls. Most accidents occur in the late afternoon, probably because of reduced light and longer shadows, and the most common scenario is an accident occurring mid-block, when a child darts out from between parked cars.
Children themselves are at increased risk for several reasons:
- They’re small and not as easily seen.
- They’re not very good at judging the distance and speed of oncoming vehicles.
- They assume if they can see the car, the car can see them.
There’s no accepted, national recommendation for kids on the best age to allow independent walking—it depends on the setting, the kind of neighborhood, the length of the walk, obstacles and intersections on the way, and the skills, maturity, and reliability of the child.
Even though there may be increased risks, encouraging your child to walk once it’s safe can be a great opportunity to encourage independence and self-confidence.
There are good ways to improve your child’s pedestrian skills, whether or not you encourage completely independent walking. Always model good skills—don’t just say that you have to look both ways, do it. And speak out loud what you’re seeing. It’s not just turning your head and then walking—say “I see that red car on the next block, it’s moving very slow,” or “I see that big truck, those can’t stop quickly, so even though it’s far away let’s give it time to pass,” or “I see that guy in the car talking on his phone. Since he’s on his phone, he’s not paying any attention to us. We better let him pass.”
Another idea: there’s a trend towards using what are called “walking buses”, where groups of neighborhood kids led or followed by just a few parents travel in a pack. That increases safety by increasing visibility, and also allows kids to learn from each other—if they’re paying attention during the walk.
You know your kids best, and you’re in the best position to judge if your own child is ready for independent walking. Consider a few trial runs, maybe with you tagging behind a few blocks—or let your children lead you to school, rather than the other way around, checking on traffic themselves. They may prove to you that they’re ready to do it themselves. After all, that’s the entire purpose of parenting, right?