When can a child walk to school by themselves?

Miles pic

This has generated lots of passionate discussion on social media.

This article from Miles police appeared on social media and in the news through the week, causing enormous uproar. It cautions parents against letting their children walk to school by themselves. As a mother and a police officer, I have strong opinions on this, and judging by the commentary on social media, so do many other parents.

Firstly, I want to clarify that yes – this is a current piece of legislation in Queensland. Yes, the exact age of twelve is specified. The law considers that at this age, children are considered responsible. But importantly, this law does not immediately deem children under that age irresponsible. The key phrase in the legislation is “without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child”.

What is ‘reasonable provision’? What defines ‘an unreasonable time’? It’s open to interpretation. But if you can name even one thing that may constitute this provision, then you probably have no need to worry about this law.

Does your child walk with siblings or another child? Do they have safe ways to cross any roads? Have you walked the route with them and addressed possible problems? Have you spoken to them about what they should do if approached by someone? Will someone quickly let you know if your kids fail to turn up? Any of these are reasonable provisions.

Some parents send their five year olds off by themselves to get to school. There are ten year olds sent off to school who detour past the local skate park and never make it to classes. There are seven year olds who wander out in peak hour traffic on their way to school, trusting in the quick reactions of drivers. So these specific laws are dragged out by exasperated police when dealing with repeated situations like this.

When I was a kid, our parents were happy for my brother and I to walk to school as soon as we were old enough to attend. This was the norm. But my parents also made us ride in the boot portion of the family station wagon after we’d been to the beach so we didn’t wreck the upholstery. We live in a different world today. As much as I’d like my kids to have a childhood disappearing all day and returning home once the street lights came on, it’s just not the same. There’s been a shift in awareness.

However, I do want to raise independent and capable children who can make practical decisions. So my children, aged seven and nine, walk part of the way to school by themselves on some mornings. I have made a number of provisions and I have no fear for their safety. This is even though, as a police officer, I know the sort of people lurking around and the sorts of things that happen. By applying due diligence and common sense, I’ve minimised the risk. I accept there is always some small risk, but this is inherent in everything we do. If someone attempted to charge me simply on the basis of the ages of my children, it would be thrown out of court. I don’t believe it’s the intention of the legislation. What age you are happy to let your children do things alone is a question for your family, and not the law – providing the ‘reasonable provisions’ have been met.

I recently discussed this very piece of legislation with the detective in charge of my local Child Protection Investigation Unit. I was on the cusp of leaving my nine year old at home by herself for short periods of time. The same law applies for this as for walking to school alone. He asked whether I had made ‘reasonable provisions’ for my daughter. She knows my phone number. She knows which neighbours she can go to. She is forbidden from going to the door unless it is a short list of specific people. She knows about ‘tricky people’ as well as ‘bad people’. She has been quizzed on what she would do in numerous hypothetical scenarios. She is responsible and sensible. As a parent, I am happy to leave her alone for short periods of time.

The age of twelve is arbitrary and Queensland seems to be the only state which has set this. I personally thought high school would be the age when I would leave my children alone for longer, so they wouldn’t have to go to vacation care when I’m at work. But with high school now including Year 7 in Queensland, many kids will start at the age of eleven. So do they have to return to primary school vacation care programs until they turn twelve? Or do the ‘reasonable provisions’ extend to a full day?

It boils down to what steps you have taken to ensure your child is safe. If the worst case scenario does happen, what could you say about your actions?

I’m not sure what prompted this particular notification in Miles. But I can guarantee there is more to this story than police randomly choosing a child quietly making their way in to school. Although I think this particular notification was probably ill-advised and the interpretation that ‘kids under 12 cannot walk or ride to school alone’ is flawed, the resulting reactions show that it is clearly a topic many parents seek guidance on.

It’s certainly prompted parents to think about their views and why they hold them. And that in itself is a positive thing.

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16 thoughts on “When can a child walk to school by themselves?

  1. I wonder if the same age applies to Victoria. I am a little shocked at this and would have broken the law many times. I have 4 kids (youngest now 9yrs – oldest 16yrs old) and admittedly I have never left my 9 yr old on his own but occasionally have let him go to school on his own. I do believe in safety in numbers but I do the same thing to all my children. We have a curfew at night and this changes in winter because it gets so dark here so early. I have explained to my kids the reason behind all my decisions. Thanks for this article – I am still shocked though #teamIBOT

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  2. I too wish the world was as safe (blissfully naive?) as it was when I was a kid. I was only discussing this with me best friend of over 30 years the other day. As for my younger kids the have walked to school a couple of times together (10 & 8) but I feel I have prepared them with information and instructions on all possible scenarios. When they are in high school the will walk by themselves. I mean who wants to be seen waking to school with a parent in high school?? And we are only 400m and a school crossing away from the high school anyway. Until then I’m happy walking them.

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    • There’s a lot of strong views on this and a lot of people say ‘I walked to school by myself when I was a kid’. Things have changed though and I’m not entirely sure why. I walk my kids until they are in sight of the lollipop lady and the school. They are happy to get themselves in the rest of the way and so am I. And it makes it easier to get to work on time. Thanks for your comments.

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  3. This story got shared on my FB by a friend in sydney tagging me. We are in Brisbane and my girls started walking to/from school together when they were 9 and 10. We are 500m from school with only one tricky street to cross (the others are easy or with crossing guard). They were shown the best place to cross to allow for visibility and to wait if see a car (if within a block) rather than attempt to outrun it. Since they started I have noticed a huge increase in walkers and those riding bikes and scooters (kids now 11 1/2 and 13). Our school promotes active transport Wednesday encouraging anyone within walking distance to walk, ride a bike etc and some weeks class participation is near 85%!

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    • Hi Deb, that’s great to hear. Very few kids ride/walk to our school but I’m a big fan of it. I think my son in particular has benefitted from burning off a little of the excess energy before having to sit down in class. My kids have only just started walking part of the way themselves but they enjoy that little bit of independence. Thanks for your comments.

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  4. My boy is nearly 8 and I think he could safely walk to my sisters house which is very close to school. I wish we lived in a society with a little more of the freedoms we enjoyed as kids. I think people are more afraid of looking out for each other and that’s more of an issue than being more aware of potential danger.

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  5. I must admit reading the legislation made me re-think what we do with our children. The reality for us is that if they don’t get a lift with their dad to school then they have to walk because for medical reasons I can’t drive at the moment which also means they have to get home on their own. I am always here to meet them in the afternoons whether they have come home on the bus or walked. Our son is nearly 15 in his third year of high school (Yr9) and had never caught a bus until he went to high school now he is a seasoned pro.
    Our girls were 10 when they had to on their own start walking to school and home or getting the bus when it was raining. For reasons well beyond our control they had to start doing this. It does seem to be a very arbitrary age but perhaps rather than put ages in we should as parents be teaching them like you have the skills they need to get home by themselves if needed or to be able to stay at home alone for short periods of time.

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    • The fact that you are giving it careful consideration shows you are making provisions for your children’s safety. I agree, kids need to learn how to look after themselves, and activities such as walking to school is one way to do it. Thanks for your comments

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  6. I remember taking the bus by myself to get to school – grade school but yes, these are different times and only a parent can judge whether their child is mature enough to handle walking alone/staying home alone…a little more “street smarts” must be taught today.

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