By Kristi York
What is the right age for kids to walk to school unsupervised? If you seek advice from someone of a previous generation, you might be in for classic stories of solo uphill treks through knee-high snowdrifts. While that may have been fine “back in the day,” today’s reality is quite different. While we still face extreme weather, these days we also have unsettling terms like “stranger danger” and “amber alerts.”
In terms of the individual child, age is probably less important than maturity. A student walking to school has to have a sense of personal safety and be alert to cues in his surroundings. A sense of responsibility is a must-have, especially if he is going to be in charge of walking with a younger sibling.
Logistical factors also come into play. For example, what is the distance to the school? Is it a generally safe neighbourhood? Is the route simple (such as a paved path through a park behind the school) or complicated by the need to cross a high-traffic street? Even the school’s start time can be a factor, as dark winter mornings can present visibility issues.
Two years ago, Suzanne Mains and her husband decided the time was right for their daughter and son, then ages 11 and 8 respectively, to walk to school together. A buddy system was an integral part of the plan. “We were able to pair them up with another family that lives close by and whose children were also walking to and from school,” Mains says. “The kids arranged meeting times and places so they could travel together.”
There was also a serious safety talk. “The usual rules were discussed—do not talk to strangers and do not accept a car ride from anyone unless previously approved by us,” Mains remembers. “Once the kids arrive home, they call me at work. They are not to answer the door or telephone, and there are no friends allowed in the house until a parent is home.”
Overall, she says, “I feel it has helped both my kids feel more independent and self-sufficient. Of course, we have had to make same-day modifications due to inclement weather or unexpected events, but I find the kids are now better equipped to handle changes in routine.”
Some schools take extra steps to address safety concerns and encourage kids to walk to school. St. Matthew Catholic Elementary, a K-to-8 public school in Waterloo, Ont., has a safe-walking initiative led by student volunteers known as Trailblazers.
Coordinating teacher Tina Lembo-Butterworth explains that the Trailblazers are “students from Grades 5 to 8 who walk to school on designated routes and lead younger students to school with them.”
At the start of the school year, the Trailblazers received a day of safety training through corporate sponsor CAA’s School Safety Patrol program—a joint partnership between CAA, local police, school boards, and school communities.
When I asked Emma, a grade 5 student, why she joined the Trailblazers, she said: “I like little kids, and they deserve to walk to school safely, even if a parent isn’t available. We just keep an extra eye on them.”
Emma is one of 30 Trailblazers who wear a brightly coloured vest while walking to St. Matthew every morning.
“Studies have shown that traffic slows down when kids can be seen in groups,” says Lembo-Butterworth. “Visually, the bright vests and clusters of kids help to ensure safety, especially as students converge at the front of the school.”
A Sign Of Progress
This fall, the city added another high-visibility element: signs indicating the time remaining to reach the school on foot or by bicycle. The school’s newsletter suggests that students who are driven to school can be dropped off at one of the signs. The idea is to give students the added health and social benefits of walking, while reducing vehicle traffic near the school’s entrance. Some sections of the sidewalk have footprints or jumping games painted on them, to liven up the walking experience.
The Trailblazer program has been in place for five years and is one of the few of its kind, according to Lembo-Butterworth. She is quick to point out that it’s the students who make it happen. “It’s really their initiative, not like a Walking School Bus, which often has a parent involved. It’s a great program to build student leadership.”
For her part, Emma says she enjoys being a Trailblazer. “I like being active and walking with my friends. It’s also less pollution from using less cars.” Looks like this generation can benefit from doing some things the old-school way, too.
Kristi York grew up in Winnipeg—where snowdrifts actually are knee-deep—and now resides in southwestern Ontario