raising little ones in the great outdoors

Walking to School

My walk to elementary school is composed of snapshot memories. The magnolia trees with limbs made for climbing. The very steep hill. Baseball bats cracking as I passed the little league field. Blackberries.  Towering redwood trees encompassing “Dark” Park. Dawdling and giggling with my sister on our way home.

Partly out of necessity, and partly because it was just done that way, my sister and I walked or biked to school starting when I was in 2nd grade.  My mom dutifully showed us the best route where we could avoid busy streets, but with enough houses that we could find help if something went wrong.  She reminded my sister and I not to talk to strangers, especially those promising a puppy.  Then she let go.

But walking to school isn’t what it used to be. Or without it’s controversy. Fear of kidnapping, schools working to ensure the safety of kids, and busy schedules for both parents and kids have made driving to school or the bus stop, even just a few blocks, the norm. Some parents are trying to push back against these societal pressures.  Here’s an except from a New York Times article:

And Mrs. Pierce faces another obstacle to becoming a free-range mother: public opinion.

Last spring, her son, 10, announced he wanted to walk to soccer practice rather than be driven, a distance of about a mile. Several people who saw the boy walking alone called 911. A police officer stopped him, drove him the rest of the way and then reprimanded Mrs. Pierce. According to local news reports, the officer told Mrs. Pierce that if anything untoward had happened to the boy, she could have been charged with child endangerment. Many felt the officer acted appropriately and that Mrs. Pierce had put her child at risk.

Memories of the 1.5-mile trek flooded back while I was reading “”Why Can’t She Walk to School?”  Have times changed that much since we were kids? Do you perceive your children as being threatened? If you lived elsewhere (city vs. suburb vs. rural) would you approach transportation to school differently? As a parent involved in the outdoor community that is used to accepting a level of risk, are you more comfortable with your child walking/riding to school?  Please, leave a comment.

Becca Cahall

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12 Responses to “Walking to School”

  1. Kira Riedel says:

    Unfortunately, as public school transportation undergoes more and more budget cuts, the pressure to let your kids transport themselves when possible is larger than ever. At the same time, society has its own increasing dangers. Further, I’m a single parent and transportation while squeezing in a full work day is hugely challenging. The magic age for us is 12 and preferrably with phone and friend and 10 in really short distances with friends. We live in a fairly urban environment. Using phones and the buddy system is a great way for me to let the kids have a longer leash to explore their environment. I also bike with my kids to school on ocassion.

  2. Mia says:

    I strongly encourage my 8 yo to get out of the house. He walks the three blocks to school every day, rides his bike around the neighborhood, and goes to the store 1/2 mi away to fetch groceries. I live in a mixed residential neighborhood. He does have a cell phone.

    In other words, he lives the life I did at his age. We live in a fearful society, but if you ignore the fear and actually look at statistics and reality, kids are safer today than they ever have been: there is less stranger crime.

    I strongly feel that only by encouraging him to gradually develop independence can he learn how to deal with the world in which he will live. I know too many people who were utterly protected until they turned 16, then they got a drivers’ license and had never had the opportunity to develop judgement or situational awareness.

  3. Jennie says:

    We live in a suburban area where walking should be no problem, and yet, there always seem to be obstacles.
    Our city council has no concept of a pedestrian friendly town. When they widened the main road in front of our neighborhood and the high school, they conviently left the crosswalk out because it would slow traffic. It took some major fighting by our neighborhood to get the crosswalk put back. The interesting thing was the parents who were happy when the school district started to BUS the high school kids across the street, a half mile! We have watched as the city council has refused to put crosswalks in at two new elementary schools, the parents fought it at one and the other opted for busing. Wonder why childhood obesity is so high?
    The funniest incident recently is when I rode my bike to the local hamburger joint with my kids. We had to lock our bikes up at the mall and walk across the street because there were no bike racks at the restaurant. Then, on the kids meal bag were “green” ideas. One of them being — ride your bike instead of driving.

  4. Caspar says:

    From age 10 I went alone to school, most often by bike, sometimes by public transport. It was about 7 km, going from the suburbs into the center of town. Otherwise I went alon to the soccer fields and to other destinations. It never was an issue, I don’t think my parents hesitated to let me do it. We had no mobile phones then, and I think neither me or my friends have ever been approached by anyone.
    I don’t feel attitudes have changed and if I now lived in the same place I would let my child do the same things I did then. However, I now live in the center of Paris, and living in such a big city is certainly different and I would hesitate more to give my kid the same freedom!

  5. Peter says:

    I’ve presented at teaching conferences about the greatly diminished time today’s youth are spending outdoors. Where generations past (like Gen X, my cohort) were basically told “hey, it’s Saturday. Eat breakfast and get outta the house! See you for dinner!”, today’s young people are playing more and more indoors, and under the watchful eye of adults. Schools are reinforcing this by getting rid of unstructured outdoor play time (which, according to the research, increases test scores even as it reduced the amount of time teachers can teach to those tests).

    One interesting point made by Richard Louv in his excellent book Last Child in the Woods is that, since the early 60s, the rate of stranger abduction has not changed, but our perception of it sure has as every case gets national attention.

    As for me, personally, my son, now 5, just began Kindergarten at a school about 4 blocks away in our town (24,000, but abutting a 64k city). We walk him or ride bikes to school. I am more comfortable with the risks inherent in getting him on rock than those inherent in walking to school, but we’ll probably let him guide the way for what he’s comfortable with. Not yet, certainly, but I’ll have to see at what point I’m comfortable with it. It’ll have little to do with chronological age and everything to do with his developmental readiness.

    • Joel says:

      My first thought when reading this article was the research that Richard Louv mentions in his book in regards to perception of the dangers to children in our modern society. Thanks Peter for beating me to it. I agree completely with Louv’s observations that the danger is far exaggerated. While our children are to young to begin school, we still have fairly loose reins compared to our neighbors. While our son is jumping in puddles getting muddy, the neighbor kids are getting scolded for getting wet or dirty. I think it has less to do with setting limits kids, than with parents own lack of interest in spending the time and effort to teach and let children learn themselves how to behave, whether it be in traffic or in the outdoors.

  6. Becca Cahall says:

    I feel like walking to school gave me a larger sense of the world. I still remember when there was a kidnapping in the next county. We were told what the van looked like (of course it was the stereotypical van with no windows) and what to do if we saw it. It gave me an appreciation of how lucky I was to not have to normally worry. But it also raised my awareness of the world around me~ a process that is easier done in increments rather than all at once.

  7. I’m going to second that. I think some of my first memories of woods and forests come from that walk home. One place where we lived I had to walk through a big park area with trails. I definitely wandered off the path, collected heather, climbed trees. My mom did call the police once after what I thought was a ten minute detour turned into two hours late. I guess I was just having fun.

    It’s kind of interesting to that it goes back to our last post “Are you the Parent You Imagined?” I guess things change from when we are kids and maybe we feel different when actually confronted with those stories. I wonder too whether we are maybe a little less risk averse?

  8. Ian says:

    My wife and I live in an urban area (Albany Park in Chicago) and while we are only a few blocks away from the school, I don’t know that we’ll allow our daughter to do those few short blocks on her own. Of course she is two, so we have a while to mull it over and hopefully we can get out of this grotto of anti-nature sooner rather than later, but it’s still something we worry about. I want her to be able to ride her bike and go wandering through the woods on her own. It’s important to grow up with nature around and too often we forget that living in urban environments. Even though it’s a short walk, it’s still not necessarily safe.

  9. Heidi Ahrens says:

    If you read the New York Times article you will see that Lenore Skenazy is quoted since she wrote a book about the fears parents have to let their children be free.

    On Outdoorbaby.net you can find a interview with Mrs. Skenazy and a book review.


  10. It’s so interesting because in so many of the conversations we have it always seems to wrap around back to a central point — What is Safe?
    How do we provide Safety and yet place value on risk? After all, we all place a certain value on risk. It inspires creativity, confidence and happiness. Is it harder to see another being, especially your child, traverse those perils.

  11. Rob S says:

    It is disappointing to me, but we live in a culture emphasiszes every child kidnapping case that happens (creating a false sense of danger in our communities), and has built 40-50 years of un-walkable suburbs like the ones Jennie lives in — often without so much as a sidewalk. How do you take your baby for a walk without a sidewalk? I can’t tell you how many days in that first 6 months that my only sanity was taking our baby for a walk around the block.

    It would be easy to send out kids walking to school hand-in-hand with their neighbors if we lived in communities where “neighborhood” schools are still the norm so schools were close, all kids walked to school, and all parents looked out for each others kids. What a great way to build community on top of that.

    We haven’t built these kind of communities for a very long time, but they are making a comeback. We’ve purposely chosen to live in a neighborhood where walking IS easy, fun, and a reasonable thing to do.

    I love taking my daughter for a walk to the park, to the grocery store, or just around the block for fun. I hope we don’t ever find ourselves living in a neighborhood where you can’t get anywhere without your car, but the reality is those are the types of communities we’ve been building.

    Vote with your feet (literally) and choose a neighborhood that fosters community and walking. Both places we’ve lived (Evanston, IL and Seattle, WA) were built 80-100 years ago, when we still new how to build great communities. Those types of communities are starting to sprout up in new suburbs and people are buying the houses to get that community.

    For everyone else, we have to buddy up with other parents to talk up creating safe walking routes to school including (remember) crossing guards to look after the kids crossing the street. I hope our neighbors will buddy up with us when the time comes and we can send our kids off in a small group (once they are ready) to school.

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