Back to School: Is it Safe for Kids to Walk to School?

What’s the safest way for children to get to school? From walking, to carpools or school buses, parents have a few options to pick from—each with their own list of pros and cons.

Over the past few decades, though, walking to school has dramatically decreased from 48 percent of K-8th graders in 1969 to a mere 13 percent in 2009. Despite what this downward trend may suggest, however, streets are generally becoming safer for children. Better traffic infrastructure around schools, more crosswalks and guards, and successful safety campaigns have helped in decreasing child pedestrian injuries and fatalities since 1995.

Still, 236 children died and another 10,000 were injured while walking in 2013.

While the numbers are shocking, especially for parents of young children, our communities can work together to drastically decrease pedestrian injuries and fatalities.

Over the years, Safer-America has talked with many child safety experts and advocates on back to school safety. Below is our combined efforts for best practices for the active children walking to and from school.


  • Pick the Safest Route: Some schools work with local officials to outline designated safe walking zones for children walking or bicycling to school. For schools without such designations, however, parents can still map their own walkway. Juliann Sheldon, Safety Press Officer at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, outlined questions parents should ask themselves when designating a route for their kids:
  • Are there pedestrian sidewalks along this route?
  • Are there highly visible crosswalks?
  • Are there any paths with pedestrian channeling devices?
  • Is it by a highway or too secluded?

The last point is a common question: is it better for kids to follow a busy street considering the risk of a pedestrian accident or follow a more secluded path which may carry a greater risk of abduction?

In general, experts agree the best path is dependant on the child but should always include sidewalks and crosswalks. But if still torn, in a previous interview with Safer-America, Michael Spagnoletti, Community Relations & Crime Prevention Officer, said he prefers children “travel along busy streets provided there are safe lanes/sidewalks for them to walk. Not highways but also not secluded roadways.”

No matter what path you predetermine, be sure to walk it yourself to ensure there’s no surprises. Then, walk it with your child a few times prior to sending them off on their own. Ideally, kids will have neighbors they can consistently walk with, as well.

When Should I Let My Child Walk to School?

Unfortunately, picking which way your child walks to school is a little more clear cut then deciding when they’re old enough. There’s no magic age for kids; however, parents should consider their child’s cognitive skills and ability to follow directions. Other factors may include how far away their school is, weather conditions, if they’re walking in a group or solo and how easy the walk is, etc.

Depending on all the above variables, there is a general consensus that 6 and 7-year-olds should be able to walk to school in a group while most 10-year-olds can walk alone. If you’re unsure if your child is truly ready, try using Gavin de Becker’s “Test of Twelve”. While actually designed to see if children are ready to stay home alone, it can also be used to asses if they’re ready to walk to school. If your kids answer the 12 questions to your satisfaction, they are ready to hit the sidewalks.

Once they’re off on their own, it’s important parents remember the many pros of walking to school to counterbalance the natural worry. From your child gaining a sense of independence and increased exercise to helping lower air pollution and decreasing bus costs, your child and community has a lot to gain by safely walking to and from school.

If you’re a parent of a child who walks to school or about to be, we’d love to hear your tips in the comments below. How did you know your child was ready? How often did you practice the walking route before the first day of school? What are some other pros you’ve discovered now that your child is a seasoned walker?

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