Plenty of kids skip the bus in favor of walking to school, but parents need to take precautions to ensure their children arrive safely -- and it all starts with a firm set of rules.
"Children should be as prepared as possible to handle challenges they may face, especially in regard to safety," says Susan Conklu, transportation planner for the city of Scottsdale, Ariz. "Just as they do in school, children follow rules best when they've been given clear directions on what is expected and why it is important. This helps set them up for success."
Discuss the safest route to and from school. Explain the meaning of traffic signals. Help your child understand how important it is to use the "stop, look and listen" approach when crossing streets.
Be certain that your child also knows how to identify and deal with strangers, how to identify safe places, how to use 911 and how to find help if needed, says Timothy Enos, youth services lieutenant for the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office in Florida.
"Teaching children basic safety rules is fundamental," Enos says. "Each child needs an understanding of what to do in order to keep himself safe."
Before sending them out on their own, practice walking the designated route with your children, and discuss the different challenges they may face. Start early, and practice often.
"Parents should lead by example and follow the rules that help keep pedestrians safe. Remember, kids are excellent observers," Conklu says.
Once kids know the rules and have a little practice under their belts, parents can determine whether their children are ready for walking to school without an adult chaperone.
"It's up to each parent to determine what age is appropriate for a non-chaperoned commute," says Rhonda Markos, traffic safety specialist for AAA. "We frequently get calls from parents asking, 'When is it OK for my child to walk to school on their own?' Our answer is always the same: When you and your child both feel that you are ready."
"Every child, parent, journey and community is different," Markos explains. "There is no legal minimum age at which a child is allowed to walk to school on his or her own. It should be a joint decision between parent and child."
THE BUDDY SYSTEM
"Walking to school independently doesn't have to mean walking alone," Markos says.
Set your kids up for success by insisting on the buddy system. Students walking to school are more visible in groups, and there is safety in numbers.
Be sure other parents are on the same page by agreeing to a set of predetermined ground rules regarding traffic safety, the walking route, the timing involved and the importance of calling ahead if a child decides to stop at a friend's house to play.
If many children in the area walk to school, consider a "walking school bus."
"The walking school bus is similar to the buddy system," Conklu explains. "A few adults escort a group of children on the walk to school. They meet at a designated spot, or kids can join the walking school bus as it passes by their homes. It requires some planning and coordination, but it's a great way for families to develop relationships while increasing the number of children who walk to school."
Fear of predators shouldn't override your decision to let your kids walk to school, but it is important to be aware of potential dangers and prepare your children for encounters with strangers.
"Parents, as well as crossing guards and school administrators, need to stay up-to-date regarding all registered sex offenders and predators who live in the area," Enos says.
Familiarize yourself with your local Megan's Law, a collective term for legislation requiring public notification of registered sex offenders. Laws vary state to state, but in general, enforcement agencies make public the offenders' names, pictures, addresses and nature of their crimes. Such information is routinely available online or through local law enforcement.
"Parents should ensure that the child's route to school is clear of any offenders, and all children should be educated in reference to strangers and the lures that sex offenders use," Enos says.