Is your child ready to walk to school?

Living Well | Words: Jade Thrupp | Photos: Shannon Morris | Posted on 22 January 2021

Walking to school has many benefits, but how do you know if your child is ready?

As the new school year begins, many parents will be asking whether their child is old enough to walk to school. VicHealth research shows that more than 60 per cent of parents would like their children to walk to school more frequently, yet only 25 per cent of kids in Victoria routinely make the trip on foot, down from about 50 per cent Australia-wide in the 1970s.

Few dispute the health benefits of kids having a more active commute, especially with new data showing almost one in four Victorian children are overweight or obese. Yet the convenience of dropping children on their way to another destination, along with fears about pedestrian accidents and ‘stranger danger’, mean that most kids are dropped off by car.  

So how do you know when your child is ready to walk to school? 

Kids walking to school

RACV’s education programs coordinator Rebekah Smith says there is no exact age at which a child is ready to get around on their own.  

“It’s more about individual competence of the child rather than an exact age. For many children this should be around 11 or 12.”  

The law doesn’t specify an age at which a child can be left unsupervised, but takes into account the child and the reasonableness of the situation. When it comes to walking to school this can include your child’s cognitive ability, attentiveness, understanding of road rules and the route.

A mature 10-year-old might manage well, while an easily distracted 12-year-old might not fully grasp the road-safety message. It’s down to your parental judgement and comfort levels.   

As you approach the new school year, weigh up the benefits and risks of allowing your child to make their own way to school. There are plenty of resources to help, such as raisingchildren.net.au and Kidsafe.

RACV Safety Squad is a free program that teaches children about road safety, with schools able to book a visit from an RACV educator who will run sessions to suit the school’s local area. VicHealth’s Walk to School program encourages an active commute by recording how many students walk, ride or scoot to school and hands out prizes for schools with the highest levels of participation.  

Five ways to tell if your child is ready to walk to school  

The best way to test your child’s readiness to get themselves to school is to make the trip with them a few times and see how they manage. Find the safest route together and look out for: 

  • Age and maturity: is your child attentive, aware of their surroundings and sensibly behaved? 
  • Their level of road safety awareness. For instance, do they stop, look, listen and think before they cross a road? 
  • Familiarity with the local neighbourhood: are they able to follow your chosen route confidently? 
  • Walking/riding/scooting ability: are they competent and confident whatever the mode of travel? If riding, are they strong and steady enough to go without supervision? 
  • Preparedness: Do they know what to do if they get hurt or a stranger approaches? What is the back-up plan?

And five tips to make it easier

  • Set a good example by walking or cycling to local places, including school.
  • Help your child become familiar with the local neighbourhood and identify the safest routes (e.g. where there are safe road crossings).
  • Slowly build independence by letting your child do things gradually. You could walk with them to begin with, then let them walk the last few blocks alone. With many parents still working from home at least part of the week, you could take turns to walk, ride, scoot or skate with the kids.
  • If the walk to school is too long, park a few blocks from school and let your child walk the rest of the way.
  • Agree on a plan with your child for the transition towards independence, and set milestones and boundaries.
VicHealth’s Walk to School program has tips, advice and kids’ activities to help them on their way.

Source: VicHealth