Walking to School on Their Own

I’ve been reading Free-Range Kids at the recommendation of Sylvia-Rachel. Author Lenore Askenazy, head of the Free Range movement, is one of the Forward 50 Influential Jews of 2009 and was interviewed this week by both Time Magazine and CNN.

The premise of her book and blog is that parents stifle their kids when they worry about things that are unlikely to happen, like molestation and kidnapping. By teaching them to be scared of strangers and chauffeuring them everywhere, we deny them the chance to learn life skills and solve problems. There are health implications too: Kids don’t get enough exercise.

I grew up as a “free-range” kid, walking alone to school from the time I turned five. My own kids ride public buses from about 9 and the older ones started walking to school in first grade. But over the years I have become more cautious about walking to school. This is partly because of warnings and partly because of scary things that happened to people I know.

I trust my kids to get to school on their own, although I am still nervous about intersections without traffic lights. Last week I decided to let my first and third-graders walk the three blocks to school on their own, after crossing the busiest intersection with them. They have to cross one dead-end street and another manned by crossing guards. Other than my son complaining that his sister walks too slowly, they were comfortable with the idea.

The commenters on Skenazy’s blog talk about how hard it is to be a “free-ranger” when you are the only one. When I spoke to a mother from my son’s class about having the two third-graders walk home together on the days they finish late, she agreed in theory. “After the winter,” she promised. In the meantime I’m hesitant to let my son walk by himself because the streets are deserted at that hour.

When do you let your kids walk to school alone?

If you enjoyed this post you may also like:

The Walking School Bus

A Parenting Dilemma

Don’t You Have More Love for a Child than That?

The Safety Class

Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt


  1. I’ve started this year letting my boys (1st and 3rd graders) walk home by themselves some days. I’m a teacher at the school, so if we all finish at the same time, we go together. But there are days I finish earlier and after picking up the baby I don’t want to sit in front of the school for the half hour waiting for them to finish. So, they walk home together. There is also one day a week that the bigger one gets to come by himself.

    That said, last week, he got confused one day (the 3rd grader). He finished class and left the school so quickly, walking home with friends who also live on our block. I searched EVERYWHERE at school for him, called twice on the loudspeaker then realized he may have walked. A half a block from the school I found him, frantic, running BACK to the school after he got home and realized it was locked and that he had gotten confused. Needless to say we now have a plan in place “just in case.”

    …..for another post……….what are your thoughts on leaving kids home alone? In the US it’s much later than it is here, don’t you think?

    • EmahS,

      Thanks for weighing in. I see your son knew what to do when he got confused. I generally let my kids stay home for short periods (20-30 minutes) from about six.

  2. We started with walking home from shul alone. (Maybe about age 10?) They leave shul when they want after services, and we meet them there about 10 minutes later. They just have to cross a few streets, nothing terribly busy. The problem with walking *to* school is you don’t know if they’ve gotten there, so I don’t like it as a starting “walking alone” method. But by now my 13 year old is often walking to and back from school.

    A bad walking home story – boy we know was picked on by other kids. He ran away from them, but his sister fell. He didn’t go back to get her. She was lying down on the ground hurt for several hours before the parents found out and got her. (not sure why he didn’t go back, but one of his parents now works closer to the school, so that helps. )

    I take cues from my kids on leaving them alone. With my eldest, we started with ten minutes at a time. He wasn’t anxious to be left alone. Now he’s the guardian of the house, often there on his own for hours.

    • I would be concerned about ensuring they got to school except that a) they are together and b) there are so may people out at that hour that the possibility that they would be sidetracked or hurt and not noticed by anyone is minuscule.
      When it comes down to it, there are guidelines regarding any issue of independence: following their cues, teaching them how to handle certain situations, and above all, knowing your children.
      I can’t imagine one of my children not being distressed at leaving a sibling hurt on the street. Even if the child is angry at a sibling Iwould think the responsibility to the parent would override it.

  3. The joys of kibbutz life – my 2 walk around the kibbutz fairly freely & went to & from the school bus by themselves in 1st grade (tho not the first few times). I think I went to school by myself age 7, but there were no major roads to cross. The school I was in from 5-7 was the other side of a main road, so there’s no way my mother would have let me go by myself.

    As for leaving them by themselves, that happened gradually, starting with going to throw garbage, then to the neighbour etc. They always know how to contact us & would feel free to go to the neighbours in an emergency.

    • Julie, the kibbutz seems so safe, but I hear stories that make me wonder whether smaller kids are not always watched carefully enough there. My concern is probably partially jealousy!

  4. This is tremendously dependent on cultural norms, and the “culture” may differ from town to town. I moved from a city where it was unthinkable for an 11-year old to walk to shul alone, to a city where children regularly roam the streets unwatched. Those cities are a 45 minute drive from each other.

    Also, there are practical matters, like distance from school, and whether there are busy intersections to cross, etc. My daughters could easily walk the mile home from school, but don’t enjoy doing so with heavy backpacks after an 8.5 hour day.

    And it wasn’t until age 9 or 10 that we started leaving our girls home alone for short periods, and when we did we didn’t have them watching younger siblings. But by age 12 they were completely ready to babysit for longer periods.

    • Tesyaa, I agree about cultural norms. And when there are a lot of small children, the tendency may be to give too much responsibility to children too early. And the conditions of the neighborhood are alos significant.

  5. Shira Adatto says

    I live in a suburb of Los Angeles and there is no way I would let my 2nd grader walk to school alone. There is a big intersection to cross and people drive like maniacs around here – not to mention talk on the cell phone while driving. If I lived in a smaller town I think she would be mature enough to do it.

  6. I base my decisions about how free range to let my kids be in large part on the place where we are. If the streets are busy and the drivers are crazy I’m less likely to let my son walk alone.

    When we lived in Oakland, California I didn’t let my kids go out alone except RIGHT across the street. When we moved two towns over to Albany, though, I let my eldest son walk to school alone at age 8. When we lived near you here in Israel, my then-9-year-old youngest walked to school on his own for the nearly whole year that he actually went to school. His route was on less-used streets and only had one busy intersection with no crossing guard.

    Here in the North, he goes out to the park alone a lot, about two kilometers from the apartment. On the other hand, I don’t let him go right downstairs to the beach alone at all. It’s funny because at age 8 or 9 I was riding my bike to a much more dangerous beach in San Francisco alone all Spring and Summer long. But for now, my decision stands with this 10 year old.

  7. That’s a tough one. I have to admit, I am one of those paranoid mothers. Part of me wishes I wasn’t. My mother brought me up that way.

    Recently, I made a big step and gave my oldest daughter her own house key (she is 8). This was not so she and her younger brother can stay home alone for a long time but to have in case I didn’t make it to their bus stop in time (the bus stops in front of my home). There has been an occasion or two I made it home 2 minutes after the bus did. It gives me a sense of relief to know they can wait for me in our house instead of the porch.

  8. In South Africa we live in a bit of a weird society (with heaps of crime, I don’t think anyone is unaffected by violent crime towards themselves or a relative or a close friend)… I don’t let my kids roam the street alone, they are very gregarious and would/do talk to anyone, not to mention we live on a really busy road with a couple of pedestrians being run-over every year.

    But I don’t want my kids to be cloistered, so they do a lot of errands for me. I will walk with them and and one or two will go into the laundry, post office, or store while I wait out-side with the other kids. They get such joy out of doing things for themselves

    This is where they live so they have to accept that crime happens here and the risk is as real inside your home as on the street. We have to accept that it is out there and we have to get on with out lives. If anything were to happen to any of us there isn’t much I could do anyway other than scream and shout – Needless to say I pray a lot!!!

    • se7en, South Africa is scary! Last year I had a visitor from SA and while she was here, her relative in J’berg was attacked by a man with a knife. Instead of closing her gate after passing through it, she went to her garage and then went back to the gate. In the meantime the man had come through the gate and was waiting for her. You’re still giving them independence gradually, according to the local conditions.

  9. By teaching them to be scared of strangers and chauffeuring them everywhere…
    IMHO, these are two separate things. I’m all in favor of letting kids walk places by themselves. (Each one of my kids started doing this at a different age.) But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be taught not to speak to strangers. Quite the opposite in fact!

    • Mrs. S., I wrote that we shouldn’t teach children to be scared of strangers. This wasn’t an issue for me, because my children are generally reserved with strangers and have good instincts. Most molestations, etc. are not committed by strangers anyway.

  10. When my kids were little, and we lived in the moshava, they used to walk home from the Old City.

    They did this for almost two years, until their teacher and the principal told us it was dangerous. So we stopped.

    A year later, we noticed other kids from their school walking home. But, by then, we lived in our new home, too far away for them to walk.

  11. sylvia_rachel says

    My 7-year-old does not yet walk to school on her own. (She isn’t chauffeured, though. We take a city bus.) I think she probably could do it — it’s about 20 minutes, and is mostly a straight line — but I do worry about traffic, particularly right around the school: many parents drive their kids every morning, and many don’t appear to be looking very carefully for pedestrians (esp. short pedestrians). I also suspect the school would protest; the consensus around here seems to be that kids should not be walking to school alone until they’re at least 10.

    One of DD’s friends is now allowed to walk to and from school with her older brother, who I believe is 11. Another classmate’s older brother got a house key for his 12th birthday and is now allowed to walk to and from school alone. Because DD usually goes to the before- and after-school program, I don’t have a really good sense of what proportion of kids are chauffeured to school, but judging by the number of notices we get pleading with parents to use the circular drive at the front of the school to drop off their kids rather than pulling into the parking lot (where they’re likely to hit the kids arriving on foot or by bike, who use the entrance at the side of the building), I think it must be substantial.

  12. Amazing how different the cultural norms are from the US. When my (then 14 year old nephew) was thinking of visiting me in Washington, his family wouldn’t let him take the subway to where I live- the dominant attitude being that no place is safe until you can drive at the age of 16 (at which point, of course, you can go 70 mph on the nearest interstate!)

    • Mike, I let my kids take the subway in Washington at that age: 15, 12 and 4. The funny thing was when I sent them on a plane, only to find out that an under-5 must be accompanied by an 18-year-old. My sister ended up flying the shuttle from NY with them and coming right back.

  13. My first grader busses home from school by herself. I was a bit hesitant at first: she’s only 6, and is a bit of a Mummy’s girl, but I really had to do it through lack of options. 2 days a week I don’t have a car, its too dangerous (there’s lots of big roads) to walk, and I can’t come and pick her up on the bus – theres not enough time before my younger kids come out of nursery 15 minutes before the end of school. I spoke to a few hasa’ot (private buses), but between those who don’t strap the kids in, those who don’t answer their phones (and have no voicemail), and those who let the kids cross busy roads by themselves, I thought the public bus was the best choice. Any other mums I spoke to have been horrified that I’m letting her come home herself! Its good to read other parents who do the same with their kids. There are a few kids who get the bus together, she knows not to talk to strangers, or to get into anyone’s car (she’s even refused a lift from her best friend’s mum – “My mum’s waiting at the bus stop for me at home – she’ll be worried if I’m not on the bus”), and I’m glad she’s learning some independence.

  14. I was a free range kid and would like my kids to be far more free range. But it hard to be free range when no one else is. However, we do let the kids into the backyard for chunks of time. I think it is good for them since they are on the shy side, one in particular.

    My husband grew up quite caged, so we differ on how much free-ranging should be allowed/encouraged. I’d let my kids walk to school starting around 6 since that is what I did. But that isn’t up for discussion here. Perhaps I can follow from 10 feet behind as a compromise!

  15. I’m a little late to the party. My first grade daughter’s hasa’a picks her up across the busy road at the end of our block, so we have to cross her over in the mornings. We wait with her because the bus has a habit of not showing up or even driving right past us after we’ve waited for 20 minutes! (that’s fun, especially if I’m waiting with all three kids because hubby is away.)

    Coming home, the bus drops her off on the same side of the street as our building, and she just has to walk about 35 steps to our building. The only thing she has to cross if our driveway, which I’ve explained many times how she has to stop and check that no cars are coming out. In the beginning of the year I was waiting for her at the bus stop, to make sure she got off. Then, a friend of mine told me she let’s her first grader walk home from the bus stop while having to cross a very quiet street. I figured I can let her cross our driveway. Also, there is a babysitter that waits for another girl who gets off who keeps an eye on her.

    But it was a bit scary just letting her walk home 1/8 of a block to our house. I don’t let her take the elevator by herself, in case it gets stuck. She was walking up three flights with her pack, but it was heavy, so now she buzzes and i come down to get her.

  16. Miriam Kaiser says

    just my 2 shekels worth- I think although many children are mature enough to learn to cross the road from age 6/7, they are often still too small to be seen over the tops of cars and so are not easily visible to oncoming drivers- when working in a brin injury rehab centre I saw plenty of kids with injuries due to being reversed into or driven into when crossing the road from behind parked cars, not to mention the ones who were not strapped into car seats and went through the windscreen ….

    • Hi Miriam and thanks for visiting. I agree that height is one of the factors to consider when deciding whether to let kids cross on their own. Speaking of car seats, I saw a woman today with a 2yo (or younger) squirming in his unstrapped carseat. And the window was wide open! I said something to her but she ignored me, at least when I was in view. Although before the car went out of sight I saw the window go down all the way! Maybe she was trying to close it and opened it by mistake.