Q: My son has just turned 10 and is in year five. He keeps asking if he can start walking to school on his own. One or two of his friends do this but they live closer to the school than we do. He is fairly sensible but the idea makes me feel nervous. Am I being over-cautious?
A: The sight of primary school children travelling to school alone is far less common than it used to be. According to the Walk to School Campaign, in 1971, 80 of seven to 10-year-olds. Even at age 11, only around half of children walk to school unaccompanied.
There are no laws or official guidelines about all this. However, Chris Cloke, NSPCC Head of Child Protection Awareness, said: "In most situations children under eight shouldn't be out on their own. Some 10-year-olds are old enough to look after themselves in situations such as walking to school alone. However, not all 10-years-olds are the same."
So the answer to your question always has to be 'it depends' - on where you live, the type of roads and environment your son would be walking through and how sensible he is.
It's vital not to be swayed by peer pressure – there could be 29 other children in the class who would be fine walking to school but if yours is less sensible or has a trickier journey and you don't feel comfortable with it, stand firm. The fact you're spending time wondering about this at all though, makes me think this probably isn't the case for you though.
To help you decide, you need to consider the following:
1. The journey itself. Will he have to cross busy roads? If so are there pedestrian crossings? Is it the sort of area where people look out for one another? How long is the journey?
2. Your son's nature - how sensible and streetwise is he? How savvy he is about road safety and stranger danger? Does he get easily distracted – so if he sees a good friend across the road is he likely to run across without looking?
I think you also need to think about exactly what it is that's making you feel nervous about all this. If it's fear that he'll get run over or abducted (and these are perfectly normal worries as long as they're proportionate), be reassured that despite many people's perceptions, these sorts of events are mercifully rare.
If you do let him walk to school, here are some tips:
Start small and build up. For the first few days or even weeks (depending on what you and he are happy with), if you can all leave the car behind and walk, let him go ahead of you but separately to help him, and you, gain confidence. Send him on small trips such as to post a letter or buy a pint of milk in the local shop too.
If you know other children he could walk with, there's an element of safety in numbers (unless they will distract each other or lead each other into mischief which can sometimes be the case).
Suggest who to ask or what to do if he encounters a problem on the way and discuss possible scenarios, for example, he gets home before you on the way back if you are delayed and he can't find his keys.
'Revise' road safety and stranger danger messages to ensure they've sunk in, but don't go so over the top with it that you make him feel anxious!
Try and keep your cool about it if you feel worried – he will pick up on this.
If for now you come to the conclusion that he's not ready, do bear in mind that when he starts secondary school, he will probably need to get there alone. It's best not to wait to introduce independent travel until then when the journey might well be longer or more complicated.
Otherwise it's a bit like throwing him in at the deep end with no time to get used to the shallow end. Good luck with whatever you decide.
Advice is also available by contacting the free 24 hour NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by email email@example.com.
www.walktoschool.org.uk is also a helpful source of information.
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Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years.