Is it safe for our children to walk to school?

JANE DUNBAR
Last updated 10:38 25/07/2013
Walking to school

INDEPENDENCE: Council guidelines urge parents to let children make their own way to school.

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Walking to school
PARENTAL SUPERVISION: At what age should children be left to go it alone?

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How safe is it these days for children to walk to school alone?

If you see a child regularly walking alone, some distance from school, are you ever tempted to call the school and ask: Do you know about this child, and are they OK?

Online parent discussion groups are full of debate. Some parents say they would call the school if the child looked younger than 10. Others retort that some children are more than capable of walking safely to school on their own, and should be encouraged to do so.

Some parents say their children beg for the independence of walking to school alone. Others say the risks are too great and they would never let their child be alone in the streets.

Of those who comment online, however, there does seems to be general agreement that a crucial issue is the maturity of the child - their ability to pay attention and make decisions about the right time to cross roads, etc - and the degree of risk along the route to school.

In Christchurch right now, the torn-up roads and frustrated drivers certainly add to the degree of risk, but at the same time, the congestion makes for an even stronger argument that children should walk, rather than be driven.

Schools, policeand the city council say that the benefits of walking to school outweigh the risks, although the preference is for children to walk with family or friends or as part of a walking school bus if possible.

As for children who travel to school on their own, there seems to be a less interventionist approach here than sometimes reported from overseas.

Last year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on a mother whose 10-year-old daughter was approached by police while waiting for a bus after a piano lesson. The police followed the bus and when the mum greeted her daughter at the other end, officers told her that they didn't think she should let her daughter travel alone.

The mother told the paper she was grateful for the police concern, but was still "shocked" as she considered her daughter sufficiently mature.

New South Wales police were also reported to have taken a 7-year-old home after his father let him walk on his own to a shop 400 metres away.

In Christchurch, Sergeant Rob Irvine, of the police's youth services, says police would intervene if there were concerns about a child, but he was not aware of that having happened in the city.

As for an acceptable age for a child to walk alone to school, he says: "There's no set age. It depends on the child and the circumstances; ie: how far they have to walk and risks such as busy roads and poorly lit areas."

What about "stranger danger"? How great a risk does that pose to children?

Stranger danger is a term the police no longer use, he says, because most children who are abused are abused by people who know them. Even so, if children are going to walk to school, they need to know what to do if they are approached by someone who makes them feel unsafe.

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School principals appear flexible on the issue of walking alone, but do offer advice.

"We encourage children to walk in groups, and for children year 5 or younger [around age 10] to be with an adult," says Jacqui Duncan, principal of Cashmere Primary School.

At Ilam School, deputy principal Jo Dudley says that for walking or scootering, the school considers age 5 is OK if the route is along a safe route no more than 10 to 15 minutes from the school.

At South New Brighton School, principal John Bockett says he believes it depends on how far a child is travelling on their own. Generally, it's not an issue, because "our kids and parents are very much into the exercise routine and scooters and boards (with the surfing community) are very popular. We have a lot of parents who accompany their children on bikes, scooters or walking. It's great to see".

For the three schools, the physical environment is, or has been, the biggest challenge.

At Cashmere Primary, bikes, scooters and boards are out because of the risks posed by being on a hill.

At South New Brighton, Bockett says the road conditions and difficult crossing situations had made it less safe for the children since February 2011. But this month, a fully repaired two-way system opened outside the school again. The upside of the roadworks had been that more families had been leaving the car at home.

Ilam School, too, has had big disruptions along its access routes, and has some extremely busy roads in its vicinity. The city council provided hi- vis vests for children who had to cross a particularly bad Clyde Rd intersection before signals were put in.

With a revamped Ilam Rd, the school is hoping more children will walk or wheel to school, cutting down on congestion at the school gate.

Encouraging more children to walk and wheel to school is a city-wide ambition. The city council offers an advisory service to schools to help set up travel plans.

"Having a school travel plan is the most effective way for a school to develop a walking and cycling culture among its pupils," council education programme manager Anne- Marie Kite says.

"Sixteen Christchurch primary schools have school travel plans, six are developing one and several have recently expressed interest."

What does the council advise on the issue of children walking alone?

"Parents and caregivers are the best judge of when their child can safely walk to school independently," Kite says. "But walking school buses are a good way of helping children learn road sense in a safe supervised situation."

For more information on walking to school, see the council's A parent's guide to child pedestrian safety and Walking school bus guidelines for schools and parents.

- The Press

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