Marie’s twin son and daughter were in second grade when she began letting them walk to the school bus stop without her in their Akron neighborhood. By the time they were in fifth grade, they had moved close enough to school that they could walk all the way there. Marie allowed it — after talking them through some safety guidelines.
“I was unable to walk with them due to the fact that I am a single mom and work, but the rule was always they had to walk together,” says Marie, who didn’t want to provide her last name. “They had friends that would walk with them, but the big rule was that they had to stick together.”
Togetherness provided some protection, she explains, and she talked to them about not talking to strangers, not going up to cars or people they didn’t know, and what to do if the house door looked open when they got home. They were instructed to always call her as soon as they got home from school to let her know they were safe.
“They never seemed too nervous,” she says. “They understood and knew it was a big responsibility that could be taken away.”
Now, her children are 13 years old and are continuing to practice the caution that Marie instilled in them.
“They know if we are in a big crowd to stick together, stick close,” she says. “If they feel in danger or get lost, they know to find a safe place and an adult to help them. They have had a safe phone, as we have called it, to keep with them in case they get lost or need help.”
Teaching Your Kids About Safety
Marie’s story is not uncommon. There are many parents across Northeast Ohio (and beyond) who will have to make a decision to allow their children to walk to and from school. There are safety risks in the form of traffic, strangers, bullying and several other factors that they can be exposed to along their route, and communication is the number one way to help mitigate any concerns.
The first step is having a conversation at home. As a parent, you likely have specific ways you’d prefer your child respond to certain dangers, and those should be communicated to them. For example, if your kid is approached by a stranger who says they’re supposed to pick them up from school that day, should they run? Call you? Go to the police, back into the school, or to grandma’s house nearby? Your kid may not know the right answer to this, so let them know exactly what you want them to do in a variety of different scenarios.
Speak to your child in an age-appropriate, educational way to make sure they understand you completely. Bear in mind, younger children won’t be able to grasp some concepts, so talking to them as an adult might not work.
“Kids only have about one-third developed vocabulary,” says Dorothy Chlad, founder and president of National Safety Town Center. “And they don’t understand the concept of traffic until about age 9 or 10 years old. When they’re at the curb, they can’t judge the distance of a car coming. They don’t know if it’s 20 feet away going 20 miles an hour; they can’t do any of that math.”
Using terminology and examples that they understand and providing tools they can use will help them be more successful when faced with safety risks.
Make sure to look into community resources that may be available to you. One of the more recognized community programs, Safety Town, is an educational program that started in Northeast Ohio in 1937 and has existed in its current form since 1964, when Chlad (at the time a nursery school teacher) expanded it to cover comprehensive safety for children. Many communities offer one-week Safety Town programs to families of preschool-aged children to instill safety lessons in them at a young age.
Safety Town involves the whole family to make sure the lessons are continued beyond the one-week, two-and-a-half-hour-per-day program. The curriculum covers several aspects of child safety, including fire safety, safety belts, pedestrian safety, bike safety, bus safety, stranger awareness, and playground safety. In many ways, the lessons the child (and parent) learns can be applied to walking to school.
Ohio Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) Safe Routes to School program is another excellent resource that is a community-wide approach to safety through engineering (improved crossings, sidewalks, shared-use paths, etc.) or non-engineering (education, enforcement and encouragement programs) initiatives.
“Safe routes to school are best achieved through a combination of engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation approaches,” said Cait Harley, Safe Routes to School and Active Transportation Manager for ODOT. “The purpose of Safe Routes to School is to enable and encourage students in grades K-8 to walk or ride their bicycle to school safely. Through this program, the Ohio Department of Transportation provides $4 million of federal funding for projects each year that help to achieve this goal.”
If a Safety Town or Safe Routes to School program is not available in your community, you can start your own chapter. Visit nationalsafetytown.com for more information on Safety Town, and walk.ohio.gov for more information on Safe Routes to School.
Pediatricians, school staff and police officers also may have great information for you to use when having safety conversations with your child or putting together a plan for walking to school. Stay involved and communicate often with your kid to keep safety top of mind.
Tips for Parents
Need some ideas to help you prepare your child for a safe walk to and from school? Cait Harley from Safe Routes to School; Dorothy Chlad, president of National Safety Town Center; and other resources provided these tips to share.
- Children younger than 10 years old should not be walking by themselves. You or another responsible adult should walk with your child, if possible, or arrange a group of students to walk together.
- Consider giving your child access to a mobile phone that they can use in case of an emergency.
- Think about setting up a “secret word.” If someone says to your child, “Your mom told me to pick you up today,” or a stranger approaches and says they’re a family friend, your child should make sure they know the secret word. If they don’t, your child should not go with them.
- Talk to your child about how to recognize danger, what types of danger exist (strangers, damaging weather, traffic, injury, etc.), and how you would like them to respond if they are in a situation.
- Remind children to eliminate distractions and to be aware of their surroundings at all times.
- Locate nearby hospitals, police stations, and houses of friends and family that are along the route. If anything should happen, make sure they know the quickest way to get help.
- Be aware of how the time change (Nov. 3, 2019) or winter daylight hours may impact the visibility of your children and plan accordingly. Wearing clothing or backpacks with reflective markings can increase visibility.
- Identify a route that you and your child are comfortable using to get to school. To the best of your ability, select slow speed, low volume roads, routes with sidewalks or paths, and locations where there are signalized and marked crosswalks.
- Instruct your child to walk on sidewalks or paths whenever possible and to cross at intersections or marked mid-block crosswalks. If sidewalks are not available, they should walk against traffic.