Because, for a child, the journey matters a lot.
On the first day of school this year, my children informed me that they wanted to walk to and from school alone. They didn't need me, they said, because they knew the route and how to watch out for cars. But I could tell from the eagerness in their voices that there was more to their request than just knowing they could do it; they wanted the independence.
So I let them, and they've continued to walk on their own each day. My role as chaperone may have disappeared, which was sad initially, but now I enjoy having a few extra minutes to myself before they come crashing through the door, breathless and excited, at the end of the day.
I've long been an advocate of walking to school. There are the health benefits that come from exercise and fresh air, as well as the studies showing how it improves academic performance, reduces depression and anxiety, and boosts mood. But after seeing my kids' joy at being allowed the freedom to walk unaccompanied by an adult, it's made me realize that there is yet another reason that deserves serious consideration by parents: Kids, particularly young ones, just love it, especially when there are no parents around.
Sometimes it's hard for us adults to remember how it feels to be given freedom, to be unchaperoned for a few glorious minutes, but for a child, these are thrilling emotions. To have total control over the speed of one's own feet, over the route one chooses and the people one talks to, to spare a few minutes to admire a muddy puddle, a caterpillar, or some colored leaves on the sidewalk, to drag a stick along a railing, to rough-house with a sibling and fall into a snowbank -- this is a big deal. These are mini luxuries for a child who's accustomed to being hustled along by a frazzled parent in a rush, not to mention distant memories for a parent who would now consider that same walk to be an enormous inconvenience.
Ron Buliung is a researcher at the University of Toronto who examines the relationship between urban design and kids, particularly how kids get around cities. He believes it's high time adults started thinking about how kids feel about getting from point A to point B. Whereas a parent may think of a trip to school as something to get over with as quickly as possible, when you talk to a child, they consider the journey a place in and of itself.
“It’s a place where children, particularly children who are walking, experience the environment in important ways. They play games on the fly and socialize. [Kids] told us about puddles that freeze over in winter and allow them to slide across. These are moments that adults don’t think about as being important, but it’s all physical activity and learning that can have positive feedback on a child’s health.”
Please note: This is not meant to make parenting any more child-centric than it already is. Letting one's kids walk to school alone should, in fact, free up parents' time and shorten the daily to-do list.
And what about the 'stranger danger' that strikes fear into so many parents' hearts, despite being unsupported by data? Buliung offers a lovely inversion of that when he says,
“Another way to conceptualize strangers is as community. We don’t know everyone around us and so those whom we don’t know, strictly speaking, could be considered strangers as well. Yet most strangers are not interested in harming our children.”
My philosophy is that the best way to empower a child and keep them safe is to give them the tools to navigate their world with knowledge and confidence. Letting them walk to school, traversing the distance between one adult-controlled world to another, is a logical way to do this.
We need to listen to our kids, hear what they have to say and what they want for themselves. Their voices can shape future policy decisions about urban design and planning. If more kids are allowed to walk to school, and if those kids express delight in having this freedom, then over time that will create demand for more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure -- sidewalks, stop signs, slower speed limits, crossing guards, and bike lanes.
Sometimes you don't need a hundred good reasons to make something happen. Sometimes just loving it is enough, and that's how it should be for kids who want to walk to school. Let them go and let them grow.