Until recently, I had no idea there was something called International Walk to School Day. Then again, I didn’t know there was a National Coloring Book Day or a National Carrot Cake Day either. Go figure.
But coloring books and carrot cake aside, there is an actual International Walk to School Day, and it’s kind of a big deal. Hordes of kids, parents, and teachers gather to meet along popular routes and walk to school together. Reporters from local news stations show up to interview parents, and newspapers take photos. But for our family, and several others in the neighborhood, it isn’t just a Walk to School Day, but a Walk to School Month and a Walk to School Year.
That’s because every morning and afternoon, my kids join a half-dozen of their friends from the neighborhood and walk to and from school — alone, without adults.
In today’s day and age of helicopter parents and scheduled playdates, it’s rare for children to walk to school without adult supervision. Yet this is what our children — who range in age from first to fifth grade — do almost every day. (We carpool when it’s raining). Aside from the crossing guards at two intersections along their route, our kids are unsupervised for the 3/4-mile walk to and from school. And it is quite simply amazing.
Before any of you get up my ass, let me be clear that I am not putting my kids in immediate danger here. They know the route and understand the rules about staying together, stranger danger, and traffic safety. And despite all the fear mongering about kidnappings and crime, it is actually safer now than ever to be a child in America — even safer than it was in the 1970s and ’80s when the vast majority of kids walked to school alone and latchkey kids were commonplace.
Not only is walking to school alone safe in most areas, but it offers all kinds of benefits that we wouldn’t get if the kids were driven to school or escorted by an adult. For one, it gives them a break from their otherwise rigidly scheduled, supervised day. The vast majority of their time is managed by adults, whether at school or at home. The 25-minute walks to and from school each day are small slices of freedom that are important for their growing brains and bodies, giving them an important opportunity to ease into and decompress from the adult-driven rigors of the school day.
Their unsupervised walk to school also gives them opportunities to learn invaluable social skills. They look out for each other in a way they might not if they knew an adult was nearby to monitor their actions. My younger son is only in first grade, and walking the three-quarters of a mile to and from school can get a little exhausting for him after a full day of learning. He walks slower. He likes to dawdle. He picks up rocks and finds random “treasures” on the sidewalk to collect. And while my older son and some of the other older kids might get impatient, they stick together. They wait for each other and take care of one another.
One of my most important jobs as a parent is to teach my kids to be independent, self-sufficient humans. And to teach them how to be independent, they need to actually be given opportunities to be independent. On this relatively short walk home, they are able to be kids and practice what it means to be independent in a safe, albeit unsupervised, environment. Will they mess up and get into trouble? Of course, but growing up is messy, and independence isn’t learned without growing pains.
The benefits aren’t just bestowed on my kids either. It’s pretty awesome for me, as well. My kids are out the door earlier in the morning and get home later in the day, which buys me more than an hour of extra time to prepare for their homecoming. And perhaps best of all, it saves me from the hell that is the carpool line.