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Child Development

It’s More Than Just a Walk

Research says parents should let their kids walk to school.

Key points

  • Kids learn through independent activities, like walking to school.
  • Parents are often unnecessarily worried for their children's safety.
  • Over-supervision can hinder child development.
  • Children can be prepared for safe, independent experiences.

I started walking alone to school at the age of 7. I lived in Milwaukee and crossed a number of busy streets on my route—a circumstance that might be considered dangerous by today’s parents.

Yet day after day, I arrived at school and back home unscathed. In fact, I took pride in knowing every street name, every crosswalk, and even a shortcut on my route. Now, as a psychology professor who researches childhood exploration, I recognize that these walks were part of a childhood that trained me to confidently engage with a world full of complex challenges.

Fewer Kids Are Walking to School

It's estimated that 50 years ago, almost half of American children walked to school. Today the number is closer to 15 percent.

While much of this decline can be explained by a desire to keep children safe from perceived dangers, a recent policy report from the Society for Research in Child Development argues that kids need time away from constant adult supervision for healthy development. They cite walking to school as an ideal opportunity for independent development. When combined with the fact that many cities are now experiencing bus driver shortages, it is now time to reconsider how children get to school.

Kids Learn Through Independence

When children have the freedom to travel through their neighborhood without direct adult supervision, they develop critical skills. Independent walking promotes risk assessment, social competencies, environmental knowledge, problem-solving, and decision-making abilities.

These impacts appear to carry into adulthood. Adults who stayed closer to home as children seem to be more anxious when navigating in adulthood. Similarly, my own work suggests they may have less developed spatial skills—skills that are especially critical in STEM fields.

Overprotective Parenting Is a Problem

Studies link increasing overly protective parenting to the development of depression, anxiety, and phobias. In a recent commentary in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers argue that a decrease in independent activity may be the cause for much of the mental health crisis we see among today’s youth. It’s time we discourage the over-supervision of children and encourage giving children age-appropriate opportunities for autonomy.

Today’s shift away from walking to school likely began for a number of reasons, including parental fears. However, these fears are less compelling in light of the relevant data.

One of the biggest barriers to kids walking independently is concerns about traffic. Yet developmental experts note that by the age of 8, most children are capable of safely traveling to school alone. What is critical is preparation. Kids need to be taught the route they will travel and how to safely cross busy streets.

Another issue is anxiety about strangers. Many parents misperceive the modern world as being more dangerous than it was when they were children. This may be due to increasingly alarmist media coverage.

However, the data show that abductions by strangers are extraordinarily rare. Moreover, recent technology gives parents new tools to track their children’s whereabouts, providing greater peace of mind. Because either walking alone or with friends can be effective, parents can also seek out peer companions for their children.

Prepare Kids for Independence

The above is not to say that we can blithely ignore the potential dangers that strangers may pose. Instead, promoting independence includes instructing children on the life skills needed to stay safe. Children can be taught how to identify and avoid dangerous situations and learn when to ask for help and from whom. When we consider that teaching children to never talk to strangers has led to serious problems, like the case of the lost Boy Scout who avoided members of his own search party, the cost of not developing these skills is clear.

Importantly, there is no single age at which all children are capable of walking places alone. While some 7-year-olds may be ready, some 9-year-olds may not. Parents are the experts on their own children’s abilities and are well-positioned to make these judgments.

Admittedly, families who live too far from their school or live in neighborhoods coping with frequent violence may not have the option to let their children walk. These families may seek out other opportunities for their children to develop autonomy. But those who live close enough and in safe locations should consider the important, albeit daunting, task of preparing and allowing their children to walk to school.

It is not possible to protect kids from every possible danger in the world. Moreover, our efforts to protect may actually harm children by denying them critical developmental experiences. Instead, to paraphrase an old saying, we need to prepare the child for the road because we cannot prepare the road for the child.

More from Mariah G. Schug Ph.D.
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