Gradually Expanding Range for a Child Walking Alone

Welcome to the September 2013 Carnival of Natural Parenting:
Staying Safe

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared stories and tips about protecting our families. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

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“It’s a different world than when we were kids.” I often hear parents say this when they are talking about how they don’t allow their children–or even teenagers–to go anywhere alone, to walk anywhere, even to play in their own front yard.

Yes, this is a different world, the America of 2013 compared with the America of 1981, when I was 8 years old like my son is now–AMERICA IS A SAFER PLACE THAN IT WAS WHEN I WAS A CHILD. Every type of violent crime is significantly less common now than it was then. The thing many parents are most afraid will happen to a child let out of their sight is kidnapping, although abductions of children by strangers are extremely rare.

I’ve been working in crime research for 15 years, and that’s really given me some perspective on risk: The vast majority of violent crimes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, not by a stranger who abruptly captures the victim in a public place–and this is especially true of child molestation. Yes, terrible things can happen to innocent people, and it is horrible when they do, but it is important not to get too freaked out about “risk”.  (I want you to see this cartoon that clearly illustrates the issue, but I can’t get it to display on my page!)

Of course, we do feel some concern about the safety of our beloved only child. Realistically, the highest risk he faces in walking around the neighborhood is being hit by a car. I’ve written before about how we taught him traffic safety skills and decided when he was ready to walk around the block alone. In second grade, he began walking home from school alone some days, and now in third grade he is doing it 4 days a week. This is a journey of 5 blocks, with a crossing guard posted at the only busy intersection. Nicholas always gets home safely and has had no problems.

This summer, he grew bored with his walks around the block and asked to walk farther, alone. We have not been letting him walk to his school alone when the crossing guard is not on duty, because of that busy street. But we thought we might allow him to walk as far as the nearest busy street in each direction from our house.  Two of those streets border the west and south sides of our block, so he has already demonstrated his ability to walk along a busy street without getting any crazy impulse to run into traffic or getting into any trouble with passersby.

We assessed whether he was ready to roam this larger range by asking him to name all the streets within it. He had no trouble naming the four streets around our block, but we found that he could not name the two streets on which he turns going to and from school, only the busy street he crosses. He couldn’t recall the name of the little residential street parallel to ours that he crosses on his way home. When I named the busy street we were considering as his northern boundary, Nicholas knew it was the one with a bank on the near corner and another bank diagonally across–but the two other east-west streets between there and the street that takes him to school? He drew a blank on their names.

Therefore, his first mission was to walk alone as if he were going to school, but only as far as the busy street to the east, and come home and tell us the names of all the streets he used or crossed. He did this. We then agreed that his range for solo walks would be bordered on the north by the street that leads to school and on the east, south, and west by the busy streets–a total area of 2×4 blocks. He would need to show responsibility in exploring this range and mastery of the street names before we could expand the range.

Nicholas is eager to expand his range all the way “upstreet” (in local lingo) to the center of our neighborhood, about a mile north, where the two shopping streets converge, and to cross those streets alone. He would then be able to visit the branch library alone and to spend his allowance in the Rite Aid. We understand that these are exciting goals! We also feel confident that he has learned, from his many walks upstreet with us all his life, to wait for the four-way stop that makes that main intersection quite safe to cross. However, he is going to have to work up to that.

Just a few days ago, Nicholas asked to expand his range to the previously proposed northern boundary, the busy street 5 blocks north. I said I would walk the perimeter of this range with him and observe his safety skills, and when we got home he would need to tell me all the street names within the range. He brought an index card and a pencil and carefully copied the 3 new street names from the street signs. When we got home, he put the card out of sight and recited the names. I made sure he could recall them from memory before I let him take his first solo walk around his new range of 5×4 blocks.

Why the emphasis on street names? If he ever feels lost, we want him to be able to use the street signs as clues. If anything bad ever happens, we want him to be able to tell us exactly where it was. (I told him that if there is any trouble from a person or dog who came from a particular house, try to remember the number of that house as well as the street name.)

What about talking to strangers?

Nicholas has years of experience commuting with Mama on public transit and otherwise being out in public and observing how his parents interact with people we don’t know.  We talk with strangers, sometimes.  It’s perfectly okay to tell a stranger that on-street parking is free on Sundays, to respond politely to a compliment on one’s appearance, to give or ask for directions, to discuss what’s happening across the street, etc.  Nicholas has seen, though, that when a person who seems “off” starts talking to me, I minimize conversation and get away as quickly as I can.  He’s also seen that we don’t take food or gum from people we don’t know, no matter how kindly they are offering.  I have gone over these points with him several times, emphasizing that if someone makes you feel uncomfortable, it is okay to act unfriendly and get away to a place where you feel safe.

When Nicholas first started attending our neighborhood public school (instead of a preschool near my office) three years ago, I said that someday he’d be able to walk there by himself.  He said he couldn’t start until he was bigger, “Because people will stop their cars and say, ‘Oh, this little wuggums is not safe walking alone!  Get into my car, honey!’ but that is not safe to get into a strange person’s car!”  Indeed.  That hasn’t happened to him now that he is bigger and walking alone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did happen someday–not because I think the world is filled with kidnappers, but because when I was visibly pregnant or carrying an infant, occasionally strangers stopped and tried to convince me/us to get into the car because they claimed it would be safer than walking!  Nicholas knows he must never get into a car in any situation where his parents don’t know about it.  He even turned down a ride home from school in a friend’s mother’s car, although he had met her several times, because his parents didn’t know but also because he disliked her saying it was too cold for him to walk when he knew he was just fine.

How does this compare to my childhood range expansion?

The main difference is that I was able to go farther from home before reaching a busy street. Nicholas is growing up in a city, living one street away from the neighborhood business district; I grew up in a swath of ranch houses where there was little local traffic except when parents were driving children to and from the school half a block from my home. However, I think the number of people living in the 11×5 block range I roamed at his age must be less than the population of his current 5×4 block range, which includes many small apartment buildings and closely packed houses. There are more people he could encounter; does that make it safer or less safe? His experience so far with being out on his own is that when an occasional stranger or acquaintance speaks to him, it is usually to ask if he is okay and his parents know where he is.  (There was also one time he chatted with a stranger about her cat.)  We like the idea that the village is watching out for him but letting him go on his way. In this neighborhood, it is not unheard of for an 8-year-old to be out alone, and it is common to see kids of 10 or 12 by themselves. That was true in my childhood neighborhood, too.

As I remember it, by age 7 I was allowed to walk or ride my bike 4 blocks to the U-Totem, a long-gone convenience store that allowed customers in bare feet. (Its polished concrete floors were so cool and nice! Yes, I did ride my bike barefoot, and without a helmet, too! That I will not allow for my child when he gets a bike, so I am a modern parent in some ways. I guess I don’t allow him to walk around the neighborhood barefoot, either–he hasn’t asked but usually wears his flip-flops.) I also walked to and from school alone, since it was only a half block away, and I was allowed to play in the schoolyard after hours.

The summer I was 8, my range expanded to the “busy street” in each direction.  Two of these were serious thoroughfares; the other two didn’t carry all that much traffic, but drivers tended to get above the speed limit because these roads were straight, with no lights and few stop signs and cross-traffic yielding to them.  I don’t recall whether my parents set those two streets as limits for me or I decided for myself that I wasn’t comfortable crossing them.  Unlike Nicholas, I did not travel along the near side of my busy streets because they had no sidewalks.  Still, I felt I had a large area to explore, and I enjoyed looking at the various houses and yards and learning to recognize each street.

I was 11 when my parents began allowing me to venture just about anywhere, as long as I brought along a map so that I could find my way back if I got lost.  (I did get lost on my first foray, but with the map I quickly found my way again.)  They did show some concern when I told them I had walked into the woods or played in the water in the drainage ditch–they told me these places were less safe; I should go there only with a friend so that if one of us got hurt, the other could go for help.  Unfortunately, this was just at the age when most of my friends’ parents were teaching them that a girl isn’t safe on her own, so most of them weren’t allowed to accompany me.  I took my brother along to these places.  More often, I stayed on the streets, wandering for miles.  I could walk to the supermarket and bring back the family groceries!  I could walk to the shopping center or the mall and get to all kinds of businesses!  I loved the independence and did many useful errands on foot, even though the town really wasn’t designed for pedestrians; I found interesting short-cuts behind businesses, under overpasses, and so forth.

I hope that Nicholas will enjoy roaming his range the way I did.  I look forward to his being able to go upstreet alone and have his own adventures.  I like going places with him, too, of course, but my goal as his parent is to raise a person who knows how to get around in the world competently and comfortably.  I think it’s important to practice these skills, adding a little at a time, as he gets older.  It’s working for me!

***

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • Stranger Danger — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama shares her approach to the topic of “strangers” and why she prefers to avoid that word, instead opting to help her 4-year-old understand what sorts of contact with adults is appropriate and whom to seek help from should she ever need it.
  • We are the FDA — Justine at The Lone Home Ranger makes the case that when it comes to food and drugs, parents are necessarily both their kids’ best proponent of healthy eating and defense against unsafe products.
  • You Can’t Baby Proof Mother Nature — Nicole Lauren at Mama Mermaid shares how she tackles the challenges of safety when teaching her toddler about the outdoors.
  • Bike Safety With Kids — Christy at Eco Journey In the Burbs shares her tips for safe cycling with children in a guest post at Natural Parents Network.
  • Spidey Sense — Maud at Awfully Chipper used a playground visit gone awry to teach her children about trusting their instincts.
  • Watersustainablemum explains how she has used her love of canoeing to enable her children to be confident around water.
  • Safety without baby proofing — Hannabert at Hannahandhorn talks about teaching safety rather than babyproofing.
  • Coming of Age: The Safety Net of Secure AttatchmentGentle Mama Moon reflects on her own experiences of entering young adulthood and in particular the risks that many young women/girls take as turbulent hormones coincide with insecurities and for some, loneliness — a deep longing for connection.
  • Mistakes You Might Be Making With Car Seats — Car seats are complex, and Brittany at The Pistachio Project shares ways we might be using them improperly.
  • Could your child strangle on your window blinds? — One U.S. child a month strangles to death on a window blind cord — and it’s not always the obvious cords that are the danger. Lauren at Hobo Mama sends a strong message to get rid of corded blinds, and take steps to keep your children safe.
  • Tips to Help Parents Quit Smoking (and Stay Quit) — Creating a safe, smoke-free home not only gives children a healthier childhood, it also helps them make healthier choices later in life, too. Dionna at Code Name: Mama (an
    ex-smoker herself) offers tips to parents struggling to quit smoking, and she’ll be happy to be a source of support for anyone who needs it.
  • Gradually Expanding Range — Becca at The Earthling’s Handbook explains how she is increasing the area in which her child can walk alone, a little bit at a time.
  • Safety Sense and Self Confidence — Do you hover? Are you overprotective? Erica at ChildOrganics discusses trusting your child’s safety sense and how this helps your child develop self-confidence.
  • Staying Safe With Food Allergies and Intolerances — Kellie at Our Mindful Life is sharing how she taught her son about staying safe when it came to his food allergies.
  • Don’t Touch That Baby!Crunchy Con Mom offers her 3 best tips for preventing unwanted touching of your baby.
  • Playground Wrangling: Handling Two Toddlers Heading in Opposite Directions — Megan at the Boho Mama shares her experience with keeping two busy toddlers safe on the playground (AKA, the Zone of Death) while also keeping her sanity.
  • Letting Go of “No” and Taking Chances — Mommy at Playing for Peace tries to accept the bumps, bruises and tears that come from letting her active and curious one-year-old explore the world and take chances.
  • Preventing Choking in Babies and Toddlers with Older Siblings — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now gives tips on preventing choking in babies and toddlers along with Montessori-inspired tips for preventing choking in babies and toddlers who have older siblings working with small objects.
  • Keeping Our Children Safe: A Community and National Priority — September has many days and weeks dedicated to issues of safety; however, none stir the emotions as does Patriot Day which honors those slain the terrorist attacks. Along with honoring the victims, safety officials want parents to be ready in the event of another disaster, whether caused by terrorists or nature. Here are their top tips from Mary at Mary-andering Creatively.
  • A Complete Family: Merging Pets and Offspring — Ana at Panda & Ananaso shares the ground rules that she laid out for herself, her big brown dog, and later her baby to ensure a happy, safe, and complete family.
  • Be Brave — Shannon at Pineapples & Artichokes talks about helping her kids learn to be brave so that they can stay safe, even when she’s not around.
  • Catchy PhrasingMomma Jorje just shares one quick tip for helping kids learn about safety. She assures there are examples provided.
  • Know Your Kid — Alisha at Cinnamon&Sassfras refutes the idea that children are unpredictable.
  • Surprising car seat myths — Choosing a car seat is a big, important decision with lots of variables. But there are some ways to simplify it and make sure you have made the safest choice for your family. Megan at Mama Seeds shares how, plus some surprising myths that changed her approach to car seats completely!
  • I Never Tell My Kids To Be Careful — Kim is Raising Babes, Naturally, by staying present and avoiding the phrase “be careful!”

About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

23 Responses to Gradually Expanding Range for a Child Walking Alone

  1. I love the techniques you’re using to help your child be comfortable and safe with a larger radius to walk alone. I definitely was a free-range kid growing up, and these ideas for helping my children do a version of free-ranging in today’s time and culture is welcome! I never used to know street names and am just as an adult (and with the help of GPS) getting better with directions, so it’s a great idea to make those a learning exercise.

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  3. Pingback: Preventing Choking in Babies and Toddlers with Older Siblings | LivingMontessoriNow.com

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  5. That’s a great idea about street names! Right now our 4 year old doesnt go anywhere without us, but we are working on walking safely without holding anyone’s hand on our own block and stopping to look for cars at corners. My in laws live just a couple blocks away, and the park and school a d church are all also within a couple blocks, so our long term goal is definitely to have him be capable of walking to any of those places alone safely. We may start memorizing streets soon!!

  6. Kellie says:

    I grew up in the country, and there wasn’t really a large area to cover on my own. I was allowed all through the woods, the fields, and my family’s lands, and we were definitely not continuously supervised. I have a harder time giving my kids that range, because there is no one to play with them, and we live in the country as well. It is definitely something I want for them, but I don’t have a large area that I am comfortable that they are able to walk safely. Your guidelines here have given me some things to think about!

    • 'Becca says:

      It’s definitely a somewhat different issue in the country! You have less worry about traffic and interactions with other people, but if the kids get hurt (twist an ankle or something) there may not be anyone around to help them. Then there are risks like snakebite that are much less likely in the city.

      Taking walks with the kids and talking about how you avoid danger is still helpful, though. You could teach them some basic first aid skills and how to recognize your local poisonous species.

      I didn’t think to mention it, but Nicholas has been learning to recognize poison ivy, which IS a hazard in our neighborhood and even in our own yard. A lot of houses in our area have hedges along the sidewalk, and poison ivy likes to grow under them and reach out for the ankles of passersby! So far he’s always avoided it successfully. It’s another reason to talk to strangers: “Look out for that poison ivy!”

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  8. We started with allowing my oldest to walk across the street to get the mail. I could watch from the window to be sure she was looking both ways,etc. Then our comfort level grew from there. Baby steps! thanks!

  9. hannah says:

    I also grew up in the country had tons of area to explore which I was allowed to do within reason and as long as I provided a general direction for where I was going. We had a very small neighborhood and the neighbors were never worried about calling my parents and letting them know where I was. I hope that Hannabert will have a similar experience with walking to friend’s homes.

  10. Dionna Ford says:

    This has been the most educational article I’ve read today – thank you!! My 5.5yr old, who recently learned how to ride his bike, has been asking me to ride along our street, and I know it won’t be long before he’s asking to go around the block, etc. I’ve been nervous about it and not sure where to start, but you’ve given me practical ideas to start with. I’d love to hear your advice about this scenario, specifically! I’m happy to give you more info about our neighborhood if it would help. Thanks so much for writing with us this month!
    ~Dionna @ CodeNameMama.com

    • 'Becca says:

      Does your street have much traffic? Do you have sidewalks? If so, does he ride his bike on the sidewalk or in the street?

      I’m sure there’s good advice somewhere for teaching bike safety. We haven’t gotten to that yet because we don’t own any bikes; my son has ridden one only when we visit my parents, and then only in the empty parking lot at the school.

      I would start with letting him ride just back and forth on your street while you’re outside. Then you (and he) can get used to his being out of sight for a moment and coming back. (This also is good practice in turning around, which for me was one of the most difficult bicycling skills.) Teach him to cross driveways safely by looking ahead to see if any car parked in the driveway is moving, if the garage door is opening, or if a car in the street is signaling to turn into the driveway.

      What’s on the other sides of your block? If it’s all residential, then his going around the block is just about being out of sight longer and out of yelling distance. Our block has businesses on two sides. My traffic safety article explains how we taught Nicholas to understand the hazards of the busy gas-station driveways; it also explains how to understand when a driver can see you. A lot of people around here are crazily careless about turn signals, but Nicholas has been able to learn other signs that a car is about to turn (look at the position of the front wheels, etc.) and is very cautious about the possibility. I have been thinking out loud about stuff like that since he was a baby in a sling, and I think that’s helped him understand what to be alert for as a pedestrian.

  11. I agree it is different in the countryside. We live in a small village that has a pavement/sidewalk for the whole length and it continues for a mile south too. If you wanted to you could walk three miles on pavements and never have to cross a busy road. My children could walk these roads if they wanted to but they have never asked, when they do I will be more than happy to let them roam.

  12. gentlemamamoon says:

    The main thing I like about where I live is the location. Despite being close to our city center, it’s pretty quiet at the back of this residential area and the edge of which is at the bottom of our street and marked by a canal, with a tow path and allotments further beyond that. A swing park is stone throw away, literally across the street and through a short ally. Our son is only four though and although he is very capable and sensible for his age I can’t yet imagine at what age I will feel comfortable with him walking around our neighborhood alone. I grew up in the country and despite that, the biggest difference was that kids were out on the street without parental accompaniment on mass back then. Here it’s rare that we even see small groups of under 10’s out together unsupervised.
    I really like your tips and will definitely make note of them for not-so-distant-future!
    You are definitely right though, it IS a safer world out their than it was in the 80’s, it’s all too easy to forget that.

  13. Christy says:

    This is a hard one for me. I grew up walking to school by myself right from kindergarden, and when we moved when I was 7 I rode my bike crossing two major streets. I know the dangers really aren’t there for my oldest, who has just turned 9 years old, but it is so hard to let go for me. Also, I have two younger daughters who walk as well and they obviously aren’t ready. I was thinking about walking with her part way and then letting her go on her own the rest, but I like your idea of letting her walk nearby and learning the street names. It is important to be aware of one’s surroundings for safety. Thanks for these ideas!

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