At nine years old, my son and his friends most often crave two things: more independence and more time to hang out. We also happen to be in that in-between distance from our home to his school—we live too close to qualify for school-bus pick-up, but too far for me to feel comfortable with him walking the route alone. So a few other parents and I came up with a solution: We’re starting a neighbourhood “walking school bus.”
Here’s how it will work: One parent (who doesn’t live in our neighbourhood) will drop their two kids off at the farthest house on their way to work. The kids, now totalling four, will leave and head a few blocks east to my house, where they’ll “pick up” my son; then they’ll all continue along a predetermined route to school. There will be safety in numbers and they’ll get a little extra physical activity—as well as the satisfaction of independence and extra bonding time.
We thought we were being totally innovative here, but when I started searching the topic, I found whole guides dedicated to this idea. Some communities are organising walking school buses on a much larger scale, with dozens of students—and a couple of parents—going along each day for the pseudo-ride.
Do they have room to walk? Are there footpaths and paths? Is there too much traffic?
Is it easy to cross the street?
Do drivers behave well? Do they yield to walkers? Do they speed?
Does the environment feel safe? Are there loose dogs? Is there criminal activity?
Your walking school bus can be as simple as ours, starting with kids from two or three families and a text message to let the next parent know the kids are on their way. Or it can be more structured with a set schedule, bus stop locations and a rotating group of volunteer adult walkers.
If the children are very young or otherwise unable to walk on unaccompanied—or you’re dealing with a larger group of kids—parental chaperones will likely be key for successfully launching a walking school bus. But for older kids in smaller groups, like my son’s, the right age to let them walk alone is more a question of maturity.
In the documentary Running Free: Children’s Independent Mobility, produced by the University of British Columbia, one expert talks about when kids should be given the freedom to walk independently to school and other locations.
“When is a child old enough that they understand to look left and right and left again when they’re crossing the road, for example?” asks Guy Faulkner, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research-Public Health Agency of Canada (CIHR-PHAC) Chair in Applied Public Health.
“I don’t think there needs to be a set age where independent mobility is automatically transferred to a child,” he continues in the documentary. “I think it’s very much up to the individual child about when do they feel comfortable being able to independently travel and move around their neighbourhood and their city.”
Faulkner also points out that this type of independent mobility may start with walking to and from school, but it can go beyond that.
“It really is about getting to any destination in your neighbourhood, whether it’s walking to the shops or whether it’s walking to the park,” he says. “And I think if you’re walking to the park, you’re going to the park to be physically active. We certainly know from research, when kids are at the park, they’re much more physically active when they’re by themselves and playing with other kids than they are when a parent is watching over them … [and] restricting them.”