I have been thinking a lot recently about what age should I let my eldest walk to and from school on his own. He is in grade four now and we have a 1.5km walk to his school. There are two busy roads that he would have to cross, both of which have pedestrian traffic lights. But we do have a train level crossing that worries me a lot.
With these thoughts in the forefront of my mind, the following headline from The Guardian on line caught my eye, “Parents risk raising ‘battery farm’ children”. The article centres around a quote from the English Schools Minister, Kevin Brennan, who said:
“One of the things you can do to stop children being involved in road traffic accidents is to never allow them out. Of course, that will produce a generation of battery farmed children”.
The article then detailed current research in the UK which showed that:
“one in three children never play outside and two-thirds of parents are worried about letting their children outside unaccompanied.”
I was interested to see if there was a similar trend in Australia. Although I could not track down exact matching data, the following facts from Vic Health:
A 2009 survey found that more than two-thirds of Australian adults were classified as being sedentary (34.6%) or having low levels of exercise (36.9%).
Australian women of all ages are less likely than men to engage in levels of physical activity sufficient for health benefits.
Approximately 31% of children aged nine to 16 years fail to meet the national guidelines for physical activity.
People living in the most disadvantaged areas in Australia are nearly twice as likely to be sedentary (45.4%) as people living in the least disadvantaged areas (24.9%).
People born overseas are more likely to have a sedentary or low exercise level. Children born in non-English speaking countries are less likely to participate in organised sport (46%) compared with children born in Australia (25%).
While two thirds of non-Indigenous Australians took part in sport and physical recreation activities in 2002, less than half the Indigenous population participated.
Only 50% of people with a disability and 28% of those with a profound or severe core-activity limitation take part in sport or physical activities or attend sporting events as a spectator, compared with 64% of people without a disability.
Dr Judith Paphazy, a leading consultant psychologist specialising in childhood resilience, was quoted in The Age saying:
“children being driven to school and activities was one of the worst examples of over-anxious parenting that impaired a child’s development.”
I found that statement very challenging. I know that it is probably time to let my eldest son walk places on his own, but I have to admit that the thought of it scares me immensely.
WHAT IS THE RIGHT AGE FOR CHILDREN TO WALK ALONE?
I then decided to research a little more, but this time from a medical perspective on what is the appropriate age for children to be able to walk in a city environment on their own. The answer appears to be 10 years old:
They are less good at judging the distance of a car and how fast it is travelling; and their peripheral vision – the ability to ‘see things out of the corner of their eye’ – isn’t as good as an adult’s. So children under the age of 10 shouldn’t be crossing the road without an adult.(Source: ABC: Health Matters – The Pulse)
And Kidsafe (the Child Accident Prevention Foundation of Australia) states:
From 10 to 13 years of age children can cope more safely in traffic on their own. however, the busier the roads they must cross, the older they need to be. Check your child always stops, looks, listens and thinks when crossing roads.
PLANNING TO LET GO
Well 10 years of age is good news for me! Thinker is 9 years old, so in accordance with my true nature, I will plan letting him go the journey to school by himself. I will take time this year to build up his road safety skills, so that he will be able to safely walk alone by the time he is 10. When we walk together of a morning, I will make him be the one responsible for checking to see if it is safe to cross. Initially he will have to wait and see if I concur with his observation, but I will let him make the first call, so he is used to checking for himself and not relying on me.
I will also aim to leave home five minutes earlier, so that we cross a busy road at the pedestrian traffic lights that we currently do not use. It is quicker if we just wait for a train to come along, as the boom gates then come down and the traffic stops enough for us to cross the road safely. Crossing the road like this requires to much judgement for a child of his age, so I must walk the way I will want him to walk (via the traffic lights) when he is old enough to do it by himself.
The reasoning behind letting him walk himself to school has two key drivers. Firstly, I know he would love to do it and it will be great for his self esteem to start being more independent. Secondly, within a few years he will be going to secondary school, which will most likely mean catching public transport by himself to get there. I want him to be ready and capable of doing this. Walking to school is the first step on the path building up to this
UPDATE: Our eldest also made his first trip by train to the city on his own and you can read about it here Increasing Independence In Children – Taking The Train To The City