Back in my school day, my mom let me walk alone to school, my friends’ homes, and the pizzeria by the time I was 10 years old. (Uphill, both ways, and barefoot, no less.) Fast forward to me as a parent and I admit my own kids — now ages 12 and 9 — have never walked anywhere on their own. One reason is that their school is much too far from home. The other reason is what’s a common cultural fear these days of letting our kids out into the world by themselves. Even though research shows that kids are actually safer today than ever.

With the 20th annual Walk to School Day event coming up tomorrow, I feel like there’s no time like the present to take the plunge and get my kids hitting the pavement more often on their own. And if you’re like me, I’ve got some stats and tips to help you out — they way they helped me start the conversation with my own girls.

Related: Letting your kids play outside alone or walk to school:
Is it bad for kids, or just bad for parents?

1) Decide when they’re ready

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), children, in general, are not ready to cross a street alone until age 10 but of course, every child is different and varies in readiness to handle traffic and other situations. Liz’s daughters started walking to school together at 9 and 7 (though it was just a few blocks) because she knew her oldest was incredibly aware and responsible.

So basically, as we always say, you know your children best and you need to use your best judgment.

But even if you decide your children are too young to walk to school all by themselves right now, it’s never too soon to talk to them about safe practices, so they’ll have the skills they’ll need in the future.

2) Choose the Best Route and Go Over the Rules

Get out there together and map out the safest path to school with your kids. Ideally it’s one with sidewalks and the fewest street crossings. When there are streets to cross, try and choose the ones with traffic lights, crosswalks with crossing guards, and overall safe traffic patterns. (We all know a few terrible intersections where motorists fly through stop signs or have blind spots when they make turns, right?)

3) Make a Practice Run. Or Two. Or Seventeen.

Once you have the route planned out, walk it with your kids several times and model safe pedestrian behavior, such as stopping at the curb and looking for traffic in all directions before crossing a street. Remind them what to do when they need to cross a street and how to obey all traffic signs and signals. Then, when you’re feeling great about their skills, try it again only walking a half-block or so behind them the whole way so you can see just how they do.

Keep doing it until you feel they have mastered these skills. Eventually, you’ll master letting go, and they’ll be ready!

4) Buddy Up

The buddy system is ideal for kids walking to school — both because there’s safety in numbers, and because it will put your mind at ease. Plus, more young kids are easier to see crossing a busy street than one or two small ones. So talk to other neighborhood parents and try to organize a walking buddy (or more than one) for your child. Plus, it makes it more fun for them!

Another great way to get younger kids walking to school is to organize a Walking School Bus, or a group of children who walk to school accompanied by one or more adults. Kind of like a carpool, only on foot. It can be as informal as two families taking alternating turns walking all the kids to and from school, or if you have a larger group, you can create a more structured schedule of meeting points, timetables, and rotating parent volunteers.

5) Walking is No Time for Screen Time

Let your kids know that iPhones and iPods should stay in backpacks or pockets while walking to school, or walking outside. Period. Especially at crosswalks! (Truthfully, us parents should try to remember to follow those same rules to be good role models. I’m guilty of this one too.) Kids walking by themselves at a young age requires a lot of attention and skill. No one can focus well enough to walk safely if our eyes are on our phones. Explain to your child that texting while walking is a major distraction and playing Pokémon GO is even worse.

6) Use a Phone for Help

That being said, if your child is old enough to walk to school or other places alone, giving them a phone to use in emergencies is a good idea. Plus, it will ease your worries if your child texts you with a thumbs up when they get to their destination. If your child gets lost, needs help, or just needs some reassurance, teach them to use speed dial to call your phone number, a relative, a friend, the school, and anyone else you designate to help your child in an emergency. All children should know how and when to use 911 if needed, as well.

That said, it’s good for older kids with phones to have them easily accessible should they need to call in an emergency, like in a small over-the-shoulder handbag, or a front pocket. We also tell our kids not to keep phones in back pockets or external backpack pockets where they can be easily swiped, especially in a city environment.

And for anyone who judges kids with cell phones? Our view is, tough. Kids today don’t have working payphones on every corner like most of us did growing up.

7) Discuss “Tricky People”

If your kid is old enough for you to be considering solo walks to school, then no doubt you’ve had conversations about safety and looking out for “tricky people,” or those adults who ask them to break their safety rules, violate privacy, keep secrets from their parents, or just give them an “uh-oh” feeling in any way. Check out these helpful tips on talking to kids about tricky people and other safety issues that we shared recently. They’ve been really helpful in teaching our own kids about strangers and safety, and how to be smart when they’re in public places — whether they’re with you off walking to school on their own, gaining the skills it takes to grow into the confident, independent, savvy individuals we want them to be.
Top photo Renegade Geek via Flickr Creative Commons