October is international walk to school month, yet how many young children still do that independently? Parent Rachel Kean tells us about the remarkable culture in Switzerland and we look at what needs to change in the UK.
“I’m not going to hold back about this; I’m really, really proud of my daughter Bea today. She is 4 (“and a half”, as she would want me to remind you) and today she walked back from Kindergarten on her own for the first time. That’s a slight exaggeration, she actually only came out of the building, turned left and trundled down a small hill to where I was waiting for her, but still, she did it on her own.
Walking to school from an early age
“We live in Switzerland, a country where children are not just vaguely encouraged to be independent but where every single child is given the tools and knowledge they need to develop this independence.
“When we first arrived here a year ago I was utterly shocked to see teeny little people happily walking down main roads on their own with their heavy back packs and coats slung over their arms. I couldn’t even begin to imagine that my baby would ever be one of them, but now here we are and in two weeks I will be absolutely forbidden from dropping her off or picking her up from school.
“Today, as I helped her and watched her carefully check each way, cup her ears to listen for any oncoming traffic and then confidently cross the road, I marvelled at the ability of my child to do something that in the UK she simply wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to learn. She has been offered something utterly invaluable: the chance to be independent and really own a part of her life without adult intervention.
A different national, cultural approach
“So why does this work here in Switzerland, and not in the UK? The main reason seems to be that it’s always been this way and so it’s ingrained into the fabric of Swiss society.
Crucially, this means that drivers are more careful at certain times of the day when they know children are coming out of school. New drivers in Switzerland are given advice to do the same. So road safety isn’t all on the child. Plus any adults who find themselves in the area are aware to keep an eye out in case a child needs help.
Secondly the Swiss spend time and money to help the children. On the first day of Kindergarten every single child is given a bright yellow fluorescent and reflective sash to wear. They are well made, and probably quite expensive. Not only that but parents are given lots of literature to read about how to train our children to cross roads. They also have a member of the police go to each kindergarten (there are 4 in my small village) and spend an hour teaching them carefully the behaviours they need to be safe.
There are even national ‘messages’ that positively reinforce the benefits of children walking to school independently, like this film by the Swiss Association for Transport and Environment which high lights being outside, physical activity, friendship, experiences and taking responsibility.
Lastly, the sense of community here is incredible. Children play in each others’ gardens or in the street outside their houses continuously. Every parent is responsible for every child, not just their own. Some days that means you are in charge of 15 children, other days it means you’re in charge of none because someone else has the privilege of hosting the street party.
It’s all still taking a lot of getting used to and I’m not going to pretend I’m comfortable with the idea that my daughter will eventually be crossing a busy road on her own twice a day. But I am going to focus on the benefits for her, the amazing and literally life changing skills she is gaining and how happy it is making her.”
Meanwhile back in the UK…
It’s a very different story. Research shows only 25% of English primary school children now travel home from school independently compared with 86% in 1971 and 35% in 1990. If Bea lived here, she would probably have to wait until she was about 10 before she could walk to school alone. For many children, the first time they walk to school alone is the day they start secondary school.
Only a parent can judge when it’s the right time to let their child walk to school independently. We each have to find our own best way around the pressure (to do it or not do it) from schools, other parents, life and our own children; and – most importantly – around the very real danger of traffic.
Yet walking to school independently – twice daily, throughout their growing up – is arguably one of the most important things a child can do for their physical health, independence, confidence, resilience and getting to know where they live, as well as for friendship and play. As a society we should – like the Swiss – collectively make that choice far more possible for parents and children.
How can we change things?
Support Living Streets campaign for safer walking/cycling routes to schools.
Start to ‘skill up’ your children by walking, cycling or scooting with them until you know they are ready to go it alone. Sustrans has some good ideas about how to do this.
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