“Mum, when can I start riding to school by myself?” my daughter asked me one day. We were returning from school, me walking in a sling and her riding alongside me, frustrated at my injury and our walking pace.
I admit I was not expecting this question from my (then) five-year-old. I hastily said something about school policy prohibiting Prep school aged children from riding to school solo. She was silent in response and I thought nothing more of the conversation.
Then the new school year started. No longer a Prep, she began a daily reminder of how it was time for her to ride to school alone.
I was still not ready. I grew up on a farm where riding to school at that age was out of the question. And my daughter’s school, while bike friendly, was not an obviously bicycling mecca. It was common to see fewer than three bikes parked in the bike shed. I had no reference point as to what was a ‘safe age’ for riding to school independently: I simply hadn’t seen any kid of a similar age riding to school solo.
And so I tried to step back and process the concept logically. First step was to realise the benefits.
- Low intensity activity, particularly in the form of commuting to school, is great for overall health and developing minds. Known as Active School Travel (AST), it is frequently encouraged in the literature as a beneficial activity.
- Riding and walking to school alone develops a sense of independence and resilience in children.
I saw other non-academic benefits as well. At the time my three-year-old was taking afternoon naps that frequently ran into school pick-up time. If one child could ride home solo, I wouldn’t have to wake the other one to go collect her. Win-win!
I then let my mind wonder to the nagging risks that was preventing my warm embrace of the idea. These could be summarised as:
- Would she get abducted?
- Would she get hit by a car (likely another parent dropping or picking up a child)?
- What would other parents think of my ‘irresponsible’ parenting choices?
A few quick google searches cleared up my first fears. The risk of being hurt by a car while riding to school are extremely low, and the risks in Australia from being hurt or abducted by a stranger are statistically miniscule.
It turns out that my peer pressure concerns were not unusual. Research released in 2017 found that many parents feared the disapproval from other parents, friends and teachers in encouraging their children to commute to school independently. I figured if my child was riding to school solo, I would be spending less time at school and away from disapproving glances.
We had a few test runs with me riding much further behind than normal, allowing her to make her own decisions while I kept an eye on her.
Eventually I acquiesced and allowed a proper solo run.
I waited patiently outside the house for a sign of her riding down the street. I gave the normal 10-minute commute a 15-minute window to allow for first day nerves. Fifteen minutes passed without any sign. I started to sweat a little. Twenty minutes passed. I started pacing. Thirty minutes. What were those stats about abduction again?
Finally, a little girl on a bicycle appeared. She looked up at me and happily bounced the remainder of the way, full of pride and a sense of accomplishment. Not wanting to burst her bubble, I still had to ask what took so long. She had ridden into a cobweb and panicked. Some older school kids had kindly helped her clear the cobwebs off her bike.
Not only had she survived a non-existent abduction attempt, she had fended off an arachnid attack.
We began noticing trends along the commute we hadn’t picked up on before. When we ran late in the mornings she noticed the traffic intensity dropped significantly, creating a much calmer travel experience. The sight of a girl on her own also caught the eye of residents along the commuting route. For me, that provided a stronger sense of community which I was grateful for.
What I didn’t quite anticipate was the reaction from other parents.
Other parents, walking with their own children, began insisting that she ride alongside them because it was ‘safer’. They even took her home on different, non-rehearsed riding routes. None of them had spoken to me about doing this.
I did, however, receive complaints via the school. The evidence for one complaint was based on a parent stopping her while she was riding home. They asked her to name the offspring that belonged to this parent. On failing to correctly identify them, the parent had concluded she was insufficiently trained in stranger danger.
“But she is just a little girl,” someone else had explained in their rationale against solo riding.
It hadn’t occurred to me to consider the sex of the child in assessing the risk of riding to school. It turns out for many parents, we assess risk differently depending on whether the child is a boy or a girl.
A 2004 Australian study on parent perceptions of how safe a local neighbourhood is impacted whether a child regularly walks or rides to school. The likelihood of walking or riding to school was further impacted by sex differences.
- On routes where parents believed had heavy traffic, five and six-year-old boys were 2.8 times more likely to walk or ride regularly when compared to girls.
- Car dependency was also an influence. Parents of five and six-year-old girls that owned more than one vehicle were 70% less likely to ride or walk regularly when compared to boys.
A 2006 California study named, Johny walks to school – does Jane? Sex differences in children’s active travel to school found the odds of walking or bicycling to school were 40% lower for girls of the same age as boys.
A 2017 study found parental support had a positive influence on whether a child walked or rode to school, but boys received more parental encouragement to do so than girls.
So what can we do about it?
The California study indicated that when parents were active in how they travelled to school (walking and riding with their children) a decrease in sex difference in solo walking and riding was observed. Another study found that parents who knew people in their neighbourhood were more likely to encourage their children to walk or cycling to school.Getting other parents to walk and cycling with their kids helps dispel safety fears and encourages more active travel behaviours.
Encouraging your child’s class mates to ride and walk to school could be a good first step. You could also take advantage of community events such as Halloween to introduce yourself to residents on the school route.
Checking our own risk assessments against published data can also dispel the likelihood of risks. In Australia, the risk to our children in commuting to school is incredibly low. We should be more worried about our children falling out of bed.
Critical to all this is ignoring the sense of being judged by your wonderful but perhaps helicopter-prone, car-loving peers.
And if that all fails, ask the kids themselves just how amazing it is to be independent. The following is an interview with my now seven-year-old, twelve months on from her first solo commute.
Interview with my 7-year-old.
What do you like about riding to school by yourself?
Riding to school by myself makes me happy. I tell some jokes to myself. I have races with my invisible friend. I have one, you know.
I get to practice all the cool tricks like riding no hands on the handlebars.
I say hello to the birds singing (with my silent voice), and I say hello to my friends on the way.
I feel happy and heroic.
Do you get scared?
No because my brain guides me.
Hang on, I remember you were scared once. What happened that time?
I got scared when I rode through the spider web and the spider came down and I went ‘arrgghhh’ and then I rode faster and I rode down to the road and I saw two big buddies from school, and they got rid of the spider webs for me.
I was proud that I was brave.
Next time I will go another way.
What about crossing busy roads? How do you do that?
I listen if there are cars coming, and I look if there are cars coming. Then I cross the road into the middle (island) and then I do the same things again, and then I cross the road again.
Do you prefer riding to school alone or with mum?
I like both.
Sometimes I want to ride by myself, and the other times or days I want to ride with mum. Because she does the right thing and she makes sure I am looking at the road, and that’s why you are the best mum.
What would you say to other mums and dads thinking about letting their child ride to school by themselves?
I would say to them, ask your child if they are brave. And then start teaching or telling them how to ride the bike, and then they can join the special club called the Ride to School Club.