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Walking to school - a life lesson

Jo Lamiri Jo Lamiri | 20:58 UK time, Sunday, 13 February 2011

Talk to anyone over 30 and they’ll fondly reminisce about how it used to be safe enough to walk or cycle to school. It’s no less safe now. So why are so many parents paranoid about letting little Johnnie make his own way to school? Of England’s 8.3 million schoolchildren, only 2% cycle to school yet there are plenty of benefits in walking or cycling: a bit of fresh air and exercise helps them to wake up and arrive feeling energised and ready to learn

Sadly, it seems to be part of the pervading paranoia that there’s a Bogeyman at every street corner. Last year, a couple in South London, were criticised by their children’s school for letting them cycle to school on pavements in backstreets, via a carefully mapped-out route – a distance of one mile. The nanny state was in full bate. Although many might consider an 8 and a 5 year-old to be a bit young to walk to school on their own, parents should be allowed to make their own decisions.

Girl and boy going to school in rural scenery @ Jacek Chabraszewski - Fotolia.com

But just when should you allow your child to make their own way to school? Wrap them in cotton wool and on their first day at secondary school, (when there’s quite enough to fret about) they may be a bag of nerves at the thought of making the journey alone. And, at that age, they’re far too cool to have a parent tagging along... 

The answer is largely one of common sense. If you feel your child is mature enough; if you know that they can cross roads safely (boys under 14 often lack spatial and distance awareness so are more likely to have accidents); if the journey to school is relatively short and preferably, doesn’t involve crossing roads jammed with juggernauts, then you, as a parent, should make an informed decision.

This view is borne out by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), which says “children can develop valuable life skills when they are allowed out on their own and given opportunities to experience risks and learn to cope with them. RoSPA believes that life should be as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible”.

Our local primary school organises a ‘walk to school’ week, when children are encouraged to walk or cycle rather than be driven – an initiative that Mayor of London Boris Johnson is keen to foster. The PTA also organise a walking bus led by a few parents to encourage children to walk to school. The children collect ribbons as a reward and can plot their starting point on a local map on the school gate. Sustrans offers plenty of advice on walking or cycling to school.

I remember some parents calling me to question when I allowed our then primary-age children to cycle to and from school via the local common – a distance of 1.5 miles. Taking the bus was deemed even more risky yet, because I walked them to the bus stop and saw them on to the bus, it involved nothing more than being seen across the road by a lollipop lady at the other end, then a two-minute walk. As baptisms of fire go, it was barely warm. 

The sense of responsibility and independence it gave our children is paramount. Travelling alone has also made them more streetwise: at the age of 10, our daughter got off the bus a stop early then phoned me as she’d felt uneasy about a man who sat near her. 

You will know when it's the right time for you and your child to bite the bullet. In my experience, giving children some guided independence has led them to respond with enthusiasm – learning some life lessons in the process.   

Jo Lamiri is a freelance writer.

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