When is my child ready to walk to school alone?


Karen Horsman

Karen Horsman was the CBC national parenting columnist for more than a decade. She is passionate about helping families and children thrive. As Earth Rangers' parenting blogger, Karen is excited about sharing topics and resources to help empower the next generation of conservationists.


“You’re causing problems for me you know, Karen!” My neighbour laughed as she said this to me as we chatted on her driveway one day after work. There may have been a smile in her voice but I detected something else. She went on to explain that her nine-year-old daughter was asking to walk to school by herself just like my youngest child. Jenna was also nine at the time and had been walking on her own for a couple of months. My neighbour went on to say, “I just don’t think my daughter is ready and it adds a lot of pressure when other kids are allowed this kind of freedom. Besides, I’m nervous about it and I want her to be safe.”  You couldn’t ask for a more honest perspective and I appreciated that she was vulnerable enough to share it with me. I explained the preparation we did beforehand which included practicing the route and running through a list of scenarios. For the first few weeks, I stood at the end of the driveway to watch Jenna until her figure disappeared. And little by little, I let go.
This isn’t just about independence. According to a recent CBC report, encouraging kids to walk to school is becoming part of the climate change discussion. Annual events like “Walktober” and International Walk to School Month encourage families to reduce their carbon footprint by leaving the car at home to walk or cycle to school.  Brianna Salmon, the executive director of Green Communities Canada, told the CBC that since parents don’t seem to be transferring their knowledge from when they were kids about biking and walking, today’s children need more walking and cycling education. That’s where organized community events come in. They can inspire new habits and the momentum can grow from there.  Walking to school isn’t a fit for every family. Not everyone lives within a reasonable distance and some routes may involve crossing busy streets. Tight work schedules can also interfere with timing and the list goes on. There are also two separate stories here. The one that involves a parent walking with their child to school and allowing them to walk alone. 
My neighbour had an issue with the second. During our conversation, we spoke about the “legal” age to grant your child this kind of independence. According to several experts including Parachute, a charity focused on injury prevention, it’s believed that children around the age of nine are less impulsive, more attentive, and have the cognitive ability needed to cross the street safely.  Equipping your child with the tools is a key step. Not only did my daughter and I practice and role play, we took baby steps by walking the route half way together for a few days. I also believe that you know your child. I’ve often heard it said by parents who have more than one child, “Oh, my youngest daughter would be ready for that but not my oldest.” Maturity and a willingness to stick to the rules is a key part of the decision. 
At the root of this issue is fear. Every parent wants to protect their child from harm. It’s figuring out a balance between innate parental worry and the need to nurture confidence.  To this day, my two youngest children have fierce independent streaks! As they grew, they were always looking for ways to do things on their own. I had to learn to breathe and trust that they could tackle these new challenges. I needed to fight the urge to hold on tight. I struggled with when to say no and when to let go. More often than not, I leaned into letting them try. What helped me in the tough times? I would remember how much independence I had when I was a child. As I grew into a young adult, at times, I was scared to try new things, but I was confident I could handle the outcome. I would inevitably jump right in, nerves and all! Big and little tastes of freedom can do that for a child. We just have to learn to trust and let go.