“Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Walk to School — in a Big City”

This mom believes that letting her kids walk to school by age 9 — as she did — is not only okay, it’s important:

[B]eing out in the world, taking chances, making choices — is a critical part of progressing from childhood to becoming an autonomous adult. It is also an important way for us to reduce our environmental footprint, and in light of growing childhood inactivity and obesity, it is directly linked to a health imperative as well.

… When my daughter Alexandra was 9 we had some long talks: she thought it was too far, so we Googled the distance to her school and compared it to what I walked as a kid. My walk was longer. More issues arose: her backpack was too heavy (we now regularly cull it for essentials); she’s too hungry after school (we pack a snack); there are busy streets to cross (she’s had to develop savvy in paying attention); and of course, what about “stranger danger?” Admittedly, this wasn’t her concern as much as it was mine. So we taught her some ago-old lessons about interacting with strangers, and then did something very modern: we equipped her with a cellphone.

For several weeks I walked or cycled with her. But then we reached a point when it seemed natural, and easy — it wasn’t necessary for me to accompany her any more. I’m proud that she knows her way around our neighbourhood. Walking alone has increased her confidence, her freedom, her awareness of her neighbourhood, and her sense of responsibility.

And guess what? That mom — Jennifer Keesmaat — is Toronto’s chief city planner! She isn’t theoretical in her knowledge of the streets and the traffic and the crowds and the crosswalks. She knows that all of these are surmountable for a kid of 9, and she would like to see tons more kids walking! Me too! – L

Why drive when you can walk?

Why drive when you can walk?

 

 

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25 Responses to “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Walk to School — in a Big City”

  1. no rest for the weary August 31, 2014 at 12:03 am #

    On the one hand, yay.

    On the other hand, I’m still adjusting, even after all these years of raising kids (13 years now), to this “new reality” where anyone even has to point out the benefits of kids walking on their own (or with a buddy, not a parent) to school.

    It felt like such a huge rip-off to me, that suddenly the way I had been raised only 30 years previous was now basically illegal (or at least enormously socially discouraged) for me to repeat.

    When I was in elementary school, the culture was to walk or bike to school. Period. A distance of a mile from home to school was considered do-able. We all did it. In all weather. I honestly can’t remember getting driven to elementary school until I had to take a bus to a different school across town (and walked to the bus stop alone).

    The bad weather thing might have been a bit of my mother’s extremism (I think other kids got rides when it was really icky or super cold out), and I complained, but thank God I learned the habit of getting places under my own power.

    It has driven me mad to be told it’s too dangerous for my kids to do this as elementary students, and it’s driven me mad to have my own children develop an aversion to this habit because they are surrounded by “everyone else’ who gets rides to everything. It has caused an enormous amount of friction in my relationship with my children, with me trying to assert my values and the whole town subverting my efforts.

    Glad this woman is in a position of authority and power and might encourage a new kind of attitude and culture around this oh-so-basic human development milestone.

  2. Jill August 31, 2014 at 7:05 am #

    The “everyone else gets a ride to school” argument is a tough one to deal with, but it can be done, and it’s better for kids to walk than to be ferried to school like sacks of potatoes.

  3. mystic_eye August 31, 2014 at 10:59 am #

    The backpack issue gets me too, it seems like textbooks keep getting bigger, the onus is on kids to keep all their work, there’s more and more notes (kid taken during class) and handouts because the bigger and bigger textbooks are inadequate… what on earth ever happened to the notion that we were going paperless!!!

    The other absurdity is parents are now (according to top dietitians hired by the school board) expected to ensure that every drop of water required for a child to get through the day is packed in their bag at the start of the day. Oy. I have no idea what happened between when my grandma went to a school with no water (at all) but kids went home for lunch and now as far as water intake but I do know that when I was in school we managed to fill up empty water bottle without long lines and *gasp* leave class to get a drink.

  4. JP Merzetti August 31, 2014 at 10:59 am #

    Much of Toronto ‘big city’ is still walkable. It’s the ‘burbs that have gotten silly.
    I live in the east end, north of Greek Town. The streets around here are constantly crawling with kids. But the grid is an old design. That would be a kid-friendly design.

    Health issues due to inactivity. That would be from constant chauffeuring, and from the fact that kid activity now has to be supervised – often at a cost. So this becomes a class thing. Poor kids used to be fit – because they had no choice but to move around their world under their own steam.

    When the model shifts to centralized schools served by fleets of schoolbuses, we take all that away. Every morning trip to school, every recess, every lunch hour, and every trip back home….was more physical activity in a day then some kids get now in a month.

    Our so-called “urban” designs are not urban at all. They are car-centric.

    My generation grew up with an interesting concept: the independence of mobility – to school, to play, to shop, to socialize…everything we did on a daily basis. Cars were not involved. Nor were safety devices or technological distractions. Consequently we moved directly through our world and paid attention to it. We neither enjoyed nor experienced any differing status…we just did what came natural.

    When I became old enough to become a parent, I would have been outraged if my kids had not been able to enjoy those same freedoms. For freedom it is.

    Exchanged for the freedom to burn expensive gas.
    A neighborhood school was always close enough to walk to. That was how a community defined itself. Access and information. Paying strict attention to the fact that kids don’t drive.

    So the collective attitude within a community was to ensure that by design, it was safe for kids to move around within that community under their own steam.
    Automotive takeover destroyed all that.
    To the point where their natural energies are sucked dry by the vampirism of automobility.
    …..and not even the smooth, even and casual automobility of the past – but the crazed time-rushed hysterical overdrive of a society gone off its head by the tyranny of constant errands, drop-off, pickup, and the eternal commute.

    So the paradox expands. ChuckyCheez is kid-friendly. Sugar treats are kid-friendly. Teckie-toys are kid-friendly. But the physical spaces in which they live are not. Neither are the socio-political-economic commandments we now serve.
    And so parenting now becomes the fine art of servitude – instead of lighthousing for all those good ship childhood freedoms.
    I was my own pilot.
    I didn’t grow up in a cargo hold.

    No-one ever asked if the far-reaching consequences of sprawl design were family-friendly. We were just made to accept and adjust. While the cats ran away with the spoon.

  5. Warren August 31, 2014 at 11:49 am #

    JP,
    Don’t talk about Greek Town. I am no longer in the Toronto area, and I sorely miss the Danforth…………damn that’s some good food.

    Is the Astoria still there?

  6. Papilio August 31, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    I was on a little family get-together this weekend and learned that the just-turned-12yo son of my cousin has just started (two weeks ago) in the first year of secondary school (7-12th grade). He now cycles 11 miles to school, one way.

    @JP: Yes. It is unfortunate that many people seem to regard this man-made situation as something that can’t be adjusted/changed again.

  7. Glen August 31, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    I think this is great. I live in the U.S. and I think of the kids living in Iran, Russia, China, our potential military enemies, and their kids are raised in much tougher environments than American kids. A walk to school carrying a heavy load builds strong legs, strong backs, and helps children develop a stronger mind. As we all know real life isn’t always easy or convenient, getting our kids to understand this at an early age is better than when they are 29 and living in our basements.

  8. old school mama August 31, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

    I liked everything in this story except the cell phone. This kid is 9 years old and should be able to trouble shoot her way back and forth to school without an electronic crutch. Yes, it’s handy but so is your brain. If this kid ever has a question or doubt there’s an answer just a phone call away. I want my kids to have to figure things out. Critical thinking, problem solving, logic, courage, facing fear and doubts and conquering them. You miss out on these with a cell phone at your side.

  9. JP Merzetti August 31, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

    @Warren –
    Yes, the Astoria is still going strong…one of my fave chowlines. Riverdale average house prices have now just slightly topped Rosedale’s (if you can believe that.)
    But the Danforth / east end is still as vibrant as ever.
    All walkable and a healthy spread of community schools, libraries and parkland.
    Incidentally – the Danforth is “downtown” to a considerable population of east end kids….spread across a 4-mile stretch
    and acting like an urban Big Muddy to a miriad of tributaries – as was the original design intention.

    @Papilio,
    That is exactly what irritates me the most. We chose by mass consent to jump on board a community design whose far-reaching consequences reduce mobility choice for kids down to total dependence. And most sprawl communities are riddled with kids. It’s where many of them now grow up.
    In my city, only affluent young couples can afford real estate in central locations. A long-standing gentrification process. Otherwise (as in my area) loads of renters.
    As you point out – we didn’t need to do this, but when the ball really got rolling 40 years ago, we didn’t see the extent that sprawl was going to take over. Now, we know.

  10. Stephani August 31, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

    We live under a quarter mile from my kids’ school, so there’s only one time that my kids get a ride to or from school, and that’s when it’s absolutely pouring rain. Not because I’m afraid they’ll get wet, but because it’s on a hill and the water going down the street in a heavy downpour is almost enough to knock me over at times. It splashes well over the curbs where my kids have to cross.

    Light rain, hot days, all that they can and do walk to and from school. They can cool off or warm up as needed when they arrive.

  11. Dan August 31, 2014 at 7:28 pm #

    I walked 1 mile to school at age 7.

    My mother walked to school at age 5. In Westwood, Los Angeles, CA

  12. hineata September 1, 2014 at 1:20 am #

    Kudos to this lady :-).

    I must admit though, my girls have gotten lazy about walking and biking to school since they started at the intermediate/high school – they tend to bus. I don’t like them biking in high wind, but other than that it is eminently doable, for the younger one anyway, as it’s only about 3 miles. It’s a case of picking my battles, though, and often the amount of extra gear the have to carry different days(hockey gear, cheerleading etc) doesn’t fit on their bikes anyway, so the bussing habit is reinforced. I wish they didn’t also have to carry textbooks to and fro…there’d be more room on the bike :-)

    Boy still bikes everywhere – his school is closer.

  13. serena September 1, 2014 at 10:23 am #

    I love this article because my boys, 14 and 9 live in a small village population about 4000. And even though they are free to roam, you can’t go from one end of the village to the other without seeing someone you know. We recently went on a trip to New York City and although there wasn’t much opportunity to let them wander alone I did manage to get them to act somewhat like city folk, making them read the map, figure out what subway or train to take, etc. I even left them alone at an outside table near Times Square with their lunch while I walked off to get something to eat myself and I’m proud of the fact that they weren’t worried or scared about being left alone in the midst of so much humanity and so far from home. I also let them have some alone time in Central Park to climb on the rocks. I’m happily to know that they are growing up with the confidence to be alone and handle situations without me always being at their sides.

  14. oncefallendotcom September 1, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    Too bad I’ll be dead before the next generation are cantankerous old geezers. I wonder how they would sound…

    “When I was your age, sonny, we had our parents walk with us five miles in the snow, and we only had iPhone 5 to help us navigate to school. IPHONE-5S!!!!!”

  15. Jim September 1, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    @old school mama

    I understand your point but what’s better and what’s just different? It’s 2014. I’m sure there were some parents in 1914 that wanted their kids to learn how to change horse shoes or make bread from scratch or churn their own butter. Those are all fun once in a while things to learn but a walking to/from school without a phone, sure once or twice but like churning butter, it’s a fun lesson but has nothing to do with reality in 2014 and beyond.

  16. BL September 1, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

    @Jim
    “I’m sure there were some parents in 1914 that wanted their kids to learn how to change horse shoes or make bread from scratch or churn their own butter. ”

    And since cars have been invented, why should anyone walk at all?

  17. BL September 1, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

    @oncefallendotcom
    “When I was your age, sonny, we had our parents walk with us five miles in the snow, and we only had iPhone 5 to help us navigate to school. IPHONE-5S!!!!!”

    They’ll wonder how we ever got along without transporters:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transporter_%28Star_Trek%29

  18. SKL September 1, 2014 at 7:52 pm #

    Nice to see a person involved in city planning who believes kids should be able to get around safely and independently.

    We live too far away from school, so we have to settle for walking to and from the bus stop. 😉 Still have some people who think that is too scary. :/

    So last Friday I bought each of my kids a house key so they could let themselves in when they come home from school. I will be there, working upstairs, but I knew this would delight them and make them feel so “grown up.” :) They told their auntie and she about blew a gasket. She doesn’t want me to let them take the keys to school. (Of course I’m going to anyway.) Sigh….

  19. Don September 1, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

    My mother asked that walk to school from age six. Of course, she made sure that I was comfortable before letting me do it on my own.

    At 10, we moved and the new school district required everyone who lived within two miles to make it on their own. Off I went on bike or foot. There was no public transportation.

    To this day, I love to walk and do so far more than the average American or Canadian. Hopefully will live longer too.

  20. SOA September 2, 2014 at 1:07 am #

    My kids walk to and from school rain or shine, cold or heat. We don’t walk the whole way, we usually drive up and park behind the school but then we walk the rest of the way. Which is better than every other parent who drops their kids off 10 feet from the door. We walk from the street behind the school across a yard and around to the front of the school. Sometimes we walk the whole way home. It is a gamble trying to walk the whole way because I never know if my son with autism might meltdown on the way and then we are screwed. But he handles the shorter walk just fine. It gives them a minute to get their energy out before school.

    I want to progress to them walking all the way home on their own eventually. My son with autism is not there yet but if it was just his brother, he would already be doing so.

    We wear rainboots and raincoats if it is raining and winter coats if it is cold. Works just fine.

  21. Papilio September 2, 2014 at 11:21 am #

    @JP: Yes. I’m lucky to be born in a country where the spike in traffic fatalities and the oil crisis made people back in 1973 realize that this – adjusting everything to the car – wasn’t the way forward. After huge protests the focus shifted to cycling/walking as the default for short distances and the car (primarily) for longer distances and heavy loads. Many plans to build huge motorways (‘the future!’) right into historical city centers were never realized, other such plans were changed, already changed situations were adjusted or even reversed.
    Like you say, America did stay on the chosen car-centric path for 40 more years and now needs to deal with the consequences. It seems like (zoning) policies are a big obstacle (no small retail in the neighborhoods, schools have to have HUGE parking lot so not enough space in neighborhood, living above the shop is not allowed) and I’m sure there are more, but there are certainly possibilities to move away again from car-centrism.

    Along the very edges of cities here there are often roads that do have houses on them, but the distances to the closest destinations are such that 99% of the time people either drive or ride their bicycle. So there are no sidewalks – but there are bike tracks. I suspect the bike would be a better alternative to the car (or mommytaxi) than walking (‘Too far!’) in many North-American contexts as well.

  22. Laurambp September 2, 2014 at 12:37 pm #

    As a free range supporter who is currently studying city and regional planning in graduate school, this makes my day. I’m really glad to see increased walkability executed in practice.

  23. Papilio September 3, 2014 at 8:03 pm #

    Who else benefits from cycling infrastructure:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSGx3HSjKDo

    There is so much to gain…

  24. Velma Cross September 4, 2014 at 2:43 pm #

    My six year old, profoundly deaf son took a Vancouver city bus to school starting in grade one. The bus route travelled down Granville Street, a very busy thoroughfare. For the first couple of days, I accompanied him both ways. Then confident that he could manage, sent him on his way. For the first week I phoned each day to check with the school secretary that he had arrived. All went well. Then one morning, I said good bye and he ran off down the lane- but NOT in the right direction. Instead of east, he ran west! Alarmed, I sent his sister to track him down (I was still in my pyjamas). But she couldn’t catch up with him.

    Once again, I called the school to see if he had arrived. Once again all was well. But everyday he ran toward the west, not the east, and as time went by he began to bring home little treasures: books full of cancelled transfers, or chocolate bars. I asked him, “Where did you get this?” and he would be very excited and try to tell me, but his speech skills were not yet up to the complications of the explanation. So it remained a mystery.

    Then one day I was walking with the children in Kerrisdale, the little shopping village just west of our home. As we passed a bus stop, Steve became very excited, gesturing toward the sign on the bus stop post, pulling the transfer stubs out of his pocket! It took a while for my feeble adult brain to kick in, and realize what had happened:

    Everyday when Steve arrived at school, he noticed that there was another bus also parked in the bus loop at the end of the route and that this bus was called ARBUTUS, the same name that he had seen on the bus stop sign in our neighbourhood. It turned out that this was a much safer route, with traffic lights on all the crossings, and a very friendly driver who was generous with his smiles and occasional treats. Forty-four years later, I still imagine the bus driver’s amusement, greeting this charming, diminutive passenger each day and remember with pride, the creative solution my six year old son found on his own.

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