Free-range kids

A few days ago, the school held a safety class for the children, followed by an information session for parents. At this class, they were given this pamphlet:

and taught a few moves and tips for being vigilant as they walk to and from school. They were reminded to do things like stay aware, look behind them, and look alert, not daydreamy; keep a certain amount of distance between themselves and the next person; use their very loud safety buzzer (each child keeps one on his or her backpack) in short frequent bursts if they feel someone suspicious is nearby. They did a lot of role playing of various scenarios and were taught how to use all of their senses to empower themselves. Parents were given tips too, all of which were new to me and very, very interesting.

Here, children begin walking to school by themselves in first grade, which means ages 6-7, usually in little groups of kids walking together. They are also taking public transportation such as trains or buses by themselves. Kids also commute to lessons and to meet friends in the park. They have regular safety classes at school where they learn about traffic safety.  They do this whether they live in the city and have to navigate traffic lights, or in the countryside walking on isolated roads or through rice paddies.

There are parents who don't start quite this young, depending on how far the school is, but after being here for so long I've gotten quite used to the common sight of little ones walking around on their own in their little school hats and backpacks. There's even a well-known children's book called "My First Errand," about a little girl who walks to the neighborhood store to buy a carton of milk for her mother. "I can do it," she tells her mom, "because after all, I'm five!" She has all sorts of little adventures – running into a friend, tripping and losing hold of her coins, getting to the store and finding it hard to speak loudly enough to get the owner's attention, forgetting her change – but she is proud of herself at the end.




Mission accomplished!

This is one of the things that I feel makes life feel easier for parents here, when kids can go around on their own. Imagine, no carpools, no traffic and stress. No trying to juggle schedules for siblings with different activities (made worse by the fact that schools often don't get out on time and classes end at a different time each day).  Of course, I have seen parents who go to meet their children at school to pick them up, or walk them part way till they get to an intersection with a cross guard. But the overwhelming majority of kids go about on their own. 

It probably takes a certain amount of faith in the universe to say goodbye to little ones in the morning and trust they'll be home later on.  But I think the little kids here doing this every day are becoming savvy about things like traffic and finding their way around, and know what to do about minor problems like getting caught in the rain. I remember when feeling conflicted about this (and in many ways, as a bicultural parent, I still do), talking with a friend from the U.S. about this. She said that when parents are overprotective, they only think about the theoretical dangers they are protecting their children from, and not the sense of adventure, of competence, and the survival instinct that young children who do this are able to develop and hone. A Japanese friend tells me that Japanese returnees – Japanese kids who spent time in the US – are known to have trouble finding their way around when they first come back, because they didn't learn how to develop a sense of direction. 

It's a controversial topic, I know. And I know there are many differences between U.S. and Japanese society that come into play, too many for me to attempt to make any generalizations about the way things should be anywhere. But I see this same sort of letting go in smaller ways too here – in the way that, from a very young age, parents encourage their children to work things out on their own rather than having an adult intervene, hover, advise in their interactions and problems. For better or for worse, these are some salient differences that have really jumped out at me as a parent in two very different countries.

What's it like where you live? At what age do you see children walking around on their own? 


23 thoughts on “Free-range kids

  1. Frugal Kiwi

    I see fairly young children walking about on their own here in NZ. We live a block from the elementary school in a small town.
    When we lived in Auckland it was more common to see a “Walking School Bus”- a number of children walking together with an adult along a predetermined path. Good for walking, but not so good for self-reliance.

  2. Christie

    I am enjoying your blog so much. You have a wonderfully balanced perspective and your observations regarding Japan and the U.S. are so intriguing. I live in a small city just west of Toronto, Canada and the walk to and from school is a controversial issue here too.
    Currently, my 7 yr old daughter takes the school bus, so that hasn’t been an issue. We do, however, live in a small subdivision where kids her age often play together outside without adult supervision. Honestly, I’m still working on that one. I keep a pretty close eye on her.
    The Japanese model you describe is wonderful. I value those traits of competence, a sense of adventure and good survival skills and I love that your child’s school (indeed the whole country, it seems!) has a plan in place to foster those traits. That might make it a little easier for individual families to take those early steps toward independence with their children.

  3. allison

    Thanks so much for broaching this topic. My husband is from Ghana, and picked his sister up from daycare when he was 6 and she was 2. That’s a bit much for me, but when we get to that point I do hope we’ll live in a place where I trust enough to have young kids (7? 8?) go out on their own for a bit.
    Here in Cambridge I’d say I’ve seen a few 9-10 year olds, but my age estimating isn’t great.

  4. Vera Marie Badertscher

    I am so old that I remember a childhood where children were safe walking to school, even in the city. I also remember the pride in being able to make a map that showed the route from my house to the school and to other important places. Yes, these are great skills for children to have, and I wonder if our fears for children alone are real, or magnified by media attention to missing children–in fact a very rare occasion. Whereas needing to find your way around, and needing confidence, are essential.

  5. Kris

    This is interesting. Because we homeschool, my kid have by default had me around more than most kids have their parents around. Plus, most of their childhood was spent in a very rural area and a town without stop lights. Crossing a busy street was really stressful for them when they first did it! While sending young kids out into a bustling city makes me feel uncomfortable from a distance, I know that it depends entirely upon the circumstances.
    For my part, while my kids were not raised up in a city, they probably did stuff that others wouldn’t be comfortable with their kids doing at a young age – climbing TALL trees (and falling out of said trees), driving a lawn tractor, shooting a bow and arrow. I think it’s a matte of circumstance, and trusting our children.

  6. MarthaAndMe

    At the elementary school my kids went to, childrenw were not permitted to walk to school. There are some busy roads and no lights, so I guess I understand. The official policy also was that kids could not ride their bikes unless accompanied by an adult, but I saw a few older elementary kids who lived close by riding on their own. I thought that was fine.

  7. MyKidsEatSquid

    I think that in the US school administrators, parents, community members are realizing the value of having kids walk or bike to school. We just moved to a new area and one of the reasons we chose to live where we do is so that our kids can walk to school–it’s about a block away. I might still be inclined to walk with a 1st grader, but 2nd grader should be fine. If I had to put public transit in the mix, yup, I’d be a nervous parent, but how wonderful that you live in a culture where independent kids are encouraged (and the point about developing a sense of direction–I wish I had that!). Sounds like your child will be traveling with a group of children, not necessarily alone, I’d say yes.

  8. Alexandra

    I found this post really interesting. Especially your analysis of the benefits to children and the fact that a children’s book on the experience exists there. I would be curious about how crime and sexual abuse fits into this equation. Is there less or are kids off-limits somehow? I brought my kids up in France many years ago. We lived in a suburb where kids played outside and rode bikes to school. Once my daughter went walking in the forest with a friend who had moved to our suburb from Paris. They were approached by a sinister man. Since this had happened already to the friend, she knew what to do and kicked him in the balls. The two girls hightailed it home. That changed my perception of it being safe for little girls to walk around. I suppose I should have worried about my son, but he was the eldest. Now my daughter-in-law, who lives in L.A. worries about sexual predators and knows how to find them in her neighborhood, ie. where they live, through the Internet. She never lets her daughter out of the yard without an escort. I think I would prefer bringing a child up in Japan.

  9. Jennifer Margulis

    I think it’s absolutely wonderful that your kids walk, and that children in Japan walk to and from school. I find it really horrid that we have converted to a driving culture. There was a family at our school that lived TWO BLOCKS away, no kidding, and they would DRIVE their boys. No wonder we are raising a generation of obese kids.
    My children have a lot more freedom and independence than most American children and I am trying to raise them to be conscious and street smart but not fearful.
    That said, I have had some unfortunate personal experiences, as has my husband. My husband and I both walked every day to and from school (he grew up in Buffalo and I outside of Boston), as well as to anywhere else we needed to go. Both of us at different times were accosted by strangers and my husband was actually beaten by a man with dementia. Another time a stranger invited him into his car but my husband ran away. The thing that happened to me is even more unfortunate but not something I have space to explain here.
    So we both tend to worry about our children. And we are realistic, I think, that there is risk involved (perhaps even more so now in America because unlike in Japan children aren’t moving in packs). That doesn’t make me want to limit my children’s movement but it does make me want to teach them to be safe.
    Not sure this long rambling comment makes any sense.

  10. Roxanne

    We see virtually none of this in our community. My niece, who is 9 and will be in the fourth grade next year, lives just a 1/4 mile or so from school, and she still has an adult escort each morning.

  11. Alisa Bowman

    My daughter starts first grade next year at a school nearby that we will be walking to. Our town has an exceptionally good crossing guard system. I’m not worried about her getting hit by a car or about getting lost. I just worry about other grownups. I know stranger child abduction is somewhat rare, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read about it happening at a bus stop or to a kid walking to school. I think when one of the cons is death or kidnapping, it far outweighs the pros. But also with the pros, I am looking forward to walking with her and an older child whose parents can’t walk her (so I offered to). I work full time and don’t get to spend a lot of QT with my daughter. This is one nice experience we can share together.
    Anyway I can’t think of a single time that I’ve seen a kid walking to school alone around here (elementary age anyway). That may be the main difference between here and Japan–the safety factor. I don’t think a whistle is enough of a deterrent. It’s so easy to toss a little kid into a car and speed off, even if other little kids are around all sounding their little buzzers.
    That aside, I am definitely a fan of kids having their independence in other ways. When it comes to life or death safety issues, though, I’m as helicopter as it gets.

  12. ilona

    This is fascinating on a broader level – American culture has, supposedly, been more individualistic and less conformist than Japan, yet Japanese kids are learning to trust themselves and navigate the world at an earlier age. I wonder what this bodes for the future?

  13. Jesaka Long

    I was never allowed to walk to school because it meant crossing a highway and, then, I resented it. Now, I absolutely agree with that decision.
    This does bring up another interesting point: kids being aware of their surroundings and getting around on their own. My two nieces have (ages 3 & 4) have grown up with a dvd player in the car. They watch a video, not what’s happening on the streets. I wonder if or how this will influence their ability to find their own way or learn directions.

  14. Sheryl

    Oh, how I wish this was the norm here in the U.S., but sadly I think it is not. My kids are now older, but when they were young I would be too fearful to let them walk alone because of a constant flow of news of strangers in cars, etc., bothering young kids. And I grew up being able to walk anywhere and everywhere, and always wanted this for my own children. The only times we were able to let them walk around independently was in the summers, when we rented a house on an island without any cars – and it was the most empowering experience for them (and wonderfully freeing for me!) I wonder if things are safer in Japan than they are here. I am all for children gaining a sense of mastery and independence; I think it helps develop them into mature, responsible and resourceful adults.

  15. Claudine M Jalajas

    I think it’s over the top (the protective nature of parents with children). One mother I know told me she’d NEVER let her children wait at the bus stop (school bus) alone. Even though it’s about 75 feet from her door. She’s always right out there with them. “Anyone could just snatch them.” BTW, our neighborhood is pretty safe.. she acts like she lives in the middle of a war zone.
    I’m pretty close to the spectrum you mention above. I let my kids walk to a local store (few blocks away) to get ice cream or snacks. Other parents think I’m nuts. I let my 12yo son get on a small plane today and fly 800 miles with my brother (the pilot). My mother looked at me and said, “I don’t think I could have done that Claudine…” Even though the pilot is her son, and about as smart and safety conscious as they come. Yes, a little scary, and I was happy to hear they were safely on the ground again, but I was not about to let that little tiny fear ruin a perfectly amazing moment for my son. Today, he was a copilot, and he will never forget it.

  16. sarah henry

    I, too, walked to school in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia from kindergarten on up, though, granted in a convoy with my three older siblings. It was just the norm. I don’t ever remember a mum coming to pick up kids after school.
    My friends back home, all of whom live in inner Sydney, allow their kids a lot of rope from a much younger age than any of us here in the urban Bay Area.
    When my son goes to visit it’s one of the things he loves about my homeland — the amount of freedom to roam kids have there. When he was little it used to break my heart a bit when kids would run off — barefoot, mind — in a pack for an adventure and he would always first turn to me to get the AOK.
    Of course, Stateside, he’s much more willing to head out for an independent outing in the neighborhood with a friend than many of his buddies (or their parents will allow). Truth is, though, on any given stroll through the ‘hood we’re usually navigating around one or two sketchy characters, likely harmless, that we just don’t encounter as much in walks in urban Oz.
    There’s a whole bunch of socio-economic-cultural reasons for that but the bottom line is: It bums me out for my boy. I think kids growing up in urban America have to learn city street savvy from a pretty young age.

  17. Beth @ Upper West Side Mom

    One of the things that I love about living in Manhattan is the freedom that my kids have to move about. I first let my son go to the corner store when he was 9 and by the time he was 9 1/2 he could cross Broadway and go the the book store across the street himself. When he was in 5th grade the school bus let him off 2 blocks from our house and he walked home from the bus stop everyday.
    Now 14 years old, my son can go to the movies by himself and can get all over the city on the subway. My oldest daughter, now 10, will also be walking home from the bus stop next year and enjoys walking around the neighborhood with her friends and going to the stationary and bagel store by herself.
    In Manhattan my son can get to Tae Kwon Do, baseball practice, his friends’ homes and the dentist by all by himself. He can even pick up my 8 year old from her friends. I’m so spoiled. I would go crazy if I had to drive him and my girls every place they needed to be!

  18. Christine - Origami Mommy

    It makes sense to me. I think that being realistic about the risks (and there are risks, anywhere – although I read a comment on another blog (Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids blog) about absolute vs. relative risk which seemed pertinent – there is some level of risk riding in a car, as well, for instance, and there is long-term health risk when you’re not getting enough exercise on a daily basis, also), is really important. But I do think that it’s important to teach children skills that will help them to be as safe as they can be, too. I think the difference I seem to see here is that since walking without an adult is so common, no one pretends it’s completely without risk but they just do what they can to make it as safe as possible. Also, children do walk in groups for the school commute if there are other kids on the same route, but I also see a lot of kids walking on their own.

  19. Katherine

    Oh, we have that book! I want to let my daughter go places by herself when she wants to, but honestly I am more concerned about being reported to child protective services by other parents than I am about anything criminal!

  20. pita

    I walked to school from 2nd grade through 6th. The elementary school was 2 blocks from my house. My sister was 2 grades ahead of me, so we walked to school together until she went to the junior high. For the most part my kids have ridden a bus to school. One year, my daughter walked to school or I dropped her off on the way to work. I stood at our back fence and watched her walk to school when she walked herself. Now that they are older (9th grade and 7th grade) they have been going to the bus on there own for a few years. I have gone to the bus stop on the first day of school to make sure the bus shows up, but they check with the driver to make sure it is the correct bus. If it’s pouring down rain, they have the option of me driving them to the bus stop, but it’s their choice. I think I only did that once last year when the rain water started to flood the street a little. I wouldn’t let my 6 year old nephew walk to school by himself because the drivers in our neighborhood speed and don’t pay attention. There were several times where we were almost hit by careless adults while I was taking him to school. If the teacher assigned to parking lot duty was there on time, I would let him walk the last part to school on his own. If we were in an area where people actually paid attention to kids going to school instead of being preoccupied with other things and not paying attention, I would have let hte kids go to school on their own with their friends at a younger age. Mine are older now, and they do go out on their own with their friends.

  21. HCR

    I loved being a free-range girl-child. It was liberating during my elementary years – I learned to be independent, confident, not be afraid to sweat (kids are afraid of their own sweat these days, it’s bizarre) and I don’t need a GPS to get around, I am my own GPS! The only time I feared a lack of adult supervision was during recess. ;-P
    Girls need these skill-building “adventures,” particularly as their self-esteem will be eroded by bullies, social, appearance/fashion issues, etc. in the upper grades. I also think I’ve grown up to have good common sense and judgment that my peers lack (but that could be the self-esteem talking).
    One thing not yet discussed by all is a workable set of rules for U.S. suburban/urban parents. It is only touched upon by reference to the aforementioned school booklet and children’s book, but I think we busy dual-working families need explicit guidelines in order to execute such a plan.
    Now that we’ve discussed the benefits of allowing your children to roam free. Here’s a start:
    1 – Safety in numbers. Having 2 other siblings made it easier to walk 2 miles from home to summer fun day camp. The neighborhood kids would assemble after school with our bikes and our dogs and roam freely as a pack, terrorizing certain ppl’s prize vegetable gardens. Luckily there were no leash laws in the 80s.
    2 – Remove distractions. No earbuds, smart phones, internet, etc. The idea is to have your kids enhance their use of sight, hearing for hazards, yet this can give way to experiencing smell and taste as well. I became a nature-lover thru my venturing about – buttercups made my chin yellow, learning how to get at sweet honeysuckle nectar….
    Someone should write a book. Is there one out there?


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