Walking to school alone: What's the right age?

The question of how old a child should be before walking to school alone is one mulled over by parents everywhere. If you’re wrestling with whether your child is ready to walk to school (or to the bus stop) solo, read on.

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  • In December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed, allowing kids to travel "to and from school on foot or by car, bus, or bike when the parents of the child have given permission," protecting parents from charges. However, the act does not trump any state or local legislation, so it's best to research your local laws regarding kids walking sans adult.

  • The question of how old a child should be before walking to school alone is one that's mulled over by moms and dads everywhere. Due to the number of factors that must be taken into consideration, there's not a cut-and-dried answer to this highly debated topic; but discussing the issue can help every parent gain clarity.

  • If you're wrestling with whether your child is ready to walk to school (or to the bus stop) solo, here's some information to help.

  • What the experts have to say

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) suggests that children 10 and younger shouldn't walk to school unaccompanied. A National Center for Safe Routes to School report supports the NHTSA's assertion, and suggests several reasons why children younger than 10 are at high risk for pedestrian injury.

    • Multiple different cognitive skills are needed to cross a street safely, and many young children haven't developed them yet.

    • Young children have difficulty deciding whether a vehicle is moving or not. If it is moving, they can't estimate how fast it's approaching or accurately assess whether they have time to cross the street.

    • Due to height, a child's field of vision is often obstructed by parked cars, poles, signs, etc., meaning they might not see approaching vehicles.

    • Busy intersections and other complicated traffic situations are hard for younger children to process, and they can't anticipate the movements a vehicle might make.

    • Kids are easily distracted when crossing the street. They often focus on things that interest them (like their friends or a ball) instead of watching for cars.

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  • Other factors that can influence the decision

  • When deciding whether your child should walk to school alone, age isn't the only determining factor. You need to evaluate their maturity and temperament, as well as things like how far they'll have to walk, if sidewalks are available, and what safety regulations the surrounding neighborhoods offer.

  • You know your child better than anyone. Until you're confident that they can make the trip without an adult, don't let them. In the meantime, consider organizing a Walking School Bus, where parents take turns walking neighborhood kids to school or waiting with them at the bus stop.

  • Tips for safe travels

  • When your child is ready to start walking alone — whether it's a block to the bus stop or a mile to school — there are several things you can do to help them make the trip safely.

    • Escort your child several times to ensure they know the route. This is a good opportunity to evaluate their judgment, reinforce safety rules, and role play scenarios — like what to do if a stranger approaches them.

    • Identify at least two safe places (homes, offices, or stores) they can go if they need help on the way to school.

    • Buy them a wearable GPS tracker specifically designed for kids. In addition to location tracking, some GPS wearables also offer cellphone functions, so your child can let you know they've arrived at school safely.

    • Sign up to receive text alerts about local crime and potential safety issues through a site like CrimeMapping.

    • Give your child the Test of Twelve. Created by Gavin De Becker, an expert on predicting and preventing violence, the test outlines a dozen points your child should know before they are allowed to go out in pubic unaccompanied.

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  • In the end, you're the best authority on how much supervision your child needs. Don't feel pressured to rush the process. Assess your child's maturity, wait to let them walk alone until you're sure they're ready, and set up additional safety measures once they do start making the trek to school on their own — there's no need to take any chances with your child's well-being.

  • Do your kids walk to school alone? If so, did you take any additional safety precautions to prepare them? If they don't, why not? Let us know in the comments.

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Sarah lives in Utah and has her MA in Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Communication from Iowa State. She freelances and teaches speech and writing courses. You can find Sarah on Twitter .

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