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Yes, Your Kids Can (and Should) Walk to School by Themselves

Teaching kids to walk or bike to school independently is easier and safer than you think

Malia Jacobson
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Published on: August 18, 2021

boy wearing a backpack walking alone down a residential sidewalk

With school starting back up again, you may be wondering whether to have your children walk to school. There are plenty of benefits, from fostering independence to expelling some energy before they sit down to learn. But before your kids take to the sidewalks, you (and they) may want to brush up on safety basics. With pedestrian fatalities at a 30-year high, experts say pedestrians of all ages should learn how to stay safe as they walk and bike to schools, parks and around town. Here’s what two local experts had to say about stepping up safety for young walkers and cyclists.

Is it safe?

Recent news coverage of pedestrian fatalities is scary, to be sure. But alarmist headlines aside, parsing the current pedestrian safety stats reveals that kids are still pretty safe out there — though pedestrian deaths have risen, most occur among adults 55–64, with the fewest in children younger than 15, per the National Safety Council.

Despite the science-backed benefits of active commuting (i.e., walking and biking) to school, which include improved focus, increased academic performance and better overall physical health, many parents still balk at the idea, citing safety as a chief concern. These fears about safety are one reason for the steep decline in walking and biking to school over the past decades; in the 1960s, nearly half of children walked or biked to school. By 2001, the percentage had dropped to 13.

“The biggest thing we hear from parents is ‘Oh, I could never let my kid walk or bike to school, it’s too dangerous.’ And while that’s understandable, in many cases it’s not true in the way that we think it is,” says Ryan Young, youth programs manager for Seattle’s Cascade Bicycle Club. “The reality is that increased carbon emissions and a sedentary lifestyle are dangerous, too.” 
 
“Talking about pedestrian safety is tricky, because the conversation should really be about the responsibility of drivers to keep pedestrians safe, particularly children walking near schools,” says Jason A. Mendoza, M.D., MPH, a professor at the University of Washington and a principal investigator with the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Mendoza’s research focuses on increasing physical activity and active commuting to school for children, particularly for racial and ethnic minorities and childhood cancer survivors.

Building life skills

One way to quell parents’ nerves is to approach independent mobility — that is, the ability to walk or bike a reasonable distance sans adult supervision — as a teachable life skill. Children can learn how to walk around communities safely, just like they’d learn anything else, says Young. That’s the focus of Let’s Go, an in-school bicycle and pedestrian safety program for Seattle students in grades 3–6.

A collaboration between Seattle Children’s Hospital, the Seattle Department of Transportation, Cascade Bicycle Club and Outdoors for All: Adaptive Recreation, the program provides fleets of bicycles and educational materials to gym teachers in 100 local schools that collectively serve more than 20,000 students.

In the program, students learn the rules of the road, so to speak, from recognizing and interpreting street signs to navigating crosswalks and intersections safely. Program components include games to teach concepts such as right-of-way and adaptations for children with behavioral and physical differences, low physical fitness and those who don’t know how to ride a bike.

In February 2020, the program expanded to middle schools, with an updated curriculum appropriate for older students. “The program started small about 10 years ago, and I’m really excited that we’re launching in middle schools as of today,” says Young.

Walk this way

But what if your child doesn’t have access to this type of education at school? “The easiest thing you can do, starting when kids are young, is to walk with them around your neighborhood and walk them to school. There’s naturally going to be learning that’s taking place,” says Young. “Ideally, families take a gradual approach, so kids are taking longer and more complicated walking journeys as they get older.”

“Depending on your child and the complexity of your neighborhood and the volume of traffic, some families start to consider independent mobility in the third, fourth or fifth grade,” says Mendoza. This doesn’t mean suddenly turning your 10-year-old loose on the streets, he notes. “This is something you begin working on when children are younger, and then gradually they build confidence to do it themselves.”

Keeping children safer outdoors also means advocating for infrastructure improvements in and around Seattle to make communities more walkable, says Young. Research conducted in Seattle shows that the environment impacts kids’ levels of physical activity and how often they walk and bike to school — not surprisingly, children in walkable neighborhoods walk and bike more often.

When it comes to pedestrian safety, the best thing children can do is learn to look and pay attention to their surroundings, says Mendoza. “But they also need to know that they can do this. Children have been walking to school and the park for generations. The barriers are real, and there are more of them now, but we’re working on removing those barriers and teaching children to navigate in our more complex neighborhoods.”

Safe strolls and rolls: tips and resources

  • Check out educational materials from the Safe Routes to School partnership, Let’s Go and Walk Bike to School.org.
  • Practice your child’s walk-to-school route as a family on the weekends.
  • Work toward independent mobility by walking or biking with your child for the first part of their route until they’re confident enough to make the trip alone.
  • Look for a neighborhood walking group or a “Walking School Bus” so your child can walk to school with others.
  • Teach children to cross streets at marked crossings and to always look left-right-left.
  • If children walk or bike to school while it’s still dark, equip them with flashlights, headlamps, clip-on lights and other visibility enhancers.
  • Teach children to focus on their surroundings by modeling healthy digital habits on family walks: Don’t text on the go, pocket your phone, and take in the neighborhood’s sights and sounds together.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2020 and updated for 2021.

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