Kids Roaming

by jefftkjefftk1 min read4th Sep 202113 comments


Personal Blog

Over the last hundred years here, there's been a clear trend down in how far kids can wander at a given age. I think a lot of this comes from the demographic transition: with fewer kids and lower child mortality, previously acceptable risks become less so. On the other hand, I think it's really good for kids to learn how to be independent, and going where you want is an important component.

Let's say we started allowing our two older kids (7y and 5y) to wander farther from the house: what are the risks?

I think the biggest risk is cars. When my kids were learning to walk I taught them to stay out of the street, and more recently we've been practicing crossing. They're now to the point where I can tell them "cross when you think it's safe", and almost all the time they do it correctly. Unfortunately, "almost" isn't good enough here: they need to have the skill completely solid before I'm happy for them to do it unsupervised.

In cases where they don't have to cross any streets alone, like walking to school or walking around the block, as long as I know they're going it's fine. But let's say that in a few months, perhaps around when they're 8y and 6y, they're ready to cross our neighborhood streets together. They could potentially walk to the playground, linear park, and various friends houses, all within a few blocks. What are the risks then?

Potentially they could:

  • Get lost.
  • Get hurt to where they need help.
  • Get kidnapped.
  • Get stopped by the police or others, who might think they're too young to be out on their own.
I don't think any of these are very likely: they're generally cautious and have good judgement, and if something did go wrong they'd only be about 1/8mi from the house.

I do wonder whether technology might mean we could give them more freedom for a given level of safety, however, with a cell phone or GPS watch? Something where they could contact us if they needed help, and we could see where they were. Has anyone tried anything like this?


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Some more anecdata:

  • When our kids got 2.5 to 3 years old, we explored the 'island' or land surrounded by streets around our house with them until they could find back on their own when taken somewhere blindfolded. But we didn't yet let them play alone or out of sight except in the backyard. It was more a game and safety measure.
  • They were allowed to play alone and roam on the 'island' when they became about 4.5 years old. We practiced this by giving them an arm clock and asking them to come home after increasingly longer times. This was also around the time they were allowed to cross the street to go to my sister's place.
  • At 5 years, they were allowed to ride the bike on the island.
  • At 5.5 to 6 years, they were allowed to roam the whole neighborhood of 260 houses - after completing a 'roaming exam'. Among other things, they had to memorize our phone number.
  • At entry to school, the way to school was practiced in a step-by-step plan. About a kilometer with one notable street crossing at a traffic light. There would have been a 20% shorter route along a major road and along a shopping center that we opted against.
  • At 7.5 years the range was extended to include a garden society close by up to a bridge at a small creek where they were then allowed to play (water depth 30 centimeters max).
  • At 8 to 8.5 years they were allowed to go to the shopping center alone - again with an exam. Typically at this time, they would also have completed their pocket money exam.
  • At 9.5 years the roaming range was extended to include parts of the local recreational area including a big playground and a small lake. We made sure that they got their swimming badge much before this.
  • In 4th grade, the school did a public transportation challenge where groups of four to six kids would use the public transportation to solve some quizzes by going places. We supported this and did some extra training and the kids were allowed to use public transportation in general (with some exceptions, specifically central station). We let them visit relatives by train before that - but they were picked up at the train station in such cases. 
  • Riding to school with a bike is allowed by the school only in 4th grade after bicycle training (offered by a specially trained local police officer - "Schulpolizist" in German). Our kids were allowed to bike much earlier (see above) but from this point on they were allowed to use the street.

There were more steps after that but I don't have the data at hand right now. But it goes on. My oldest is now 17 and not long ago had a project with his mother where they explored all the major locations in our district (mostly by foot). He is also allowed to stay out at night to meet with friends. This is no longer such much an allowance but more a mutual agreement. The principle that we arrived at is, that he shares his location so I know where to send the rescue team as we joke. 

Context: We are living in the outskirts of Hamburg, Germany in a lower density neighborhood of 260 small 1960s row houses with no passing thru traffic. Pedestrian and bicycle traffic, as well as public transportation, is very common in Germany. There are safe ways to go almost all places; with lots of traffic lights zebra crossings, and such. It is still very uncommon that we let kids roam as much as we did. In our kids' first grade there were usually no other kids allowed to go to or from school on their own. We were aware of this of course but convinced that the long-term maturity would outweigh the risks - and this seems to have bourn out. I think a key part to success is not just allowing or forbidding things but having a step-by-step plan that takes into account the development stage of the kid.

I always enjoy reading posts like this, because I'm 34 and if I visit my parents on Long Island, my mom still won't want me to go for a walk near their house by myself. My range as a kid was 0. Until I was in middle school I basically wasn't even allowed to play in the backyard by myself unless I was somewhere someone could see me. I wasn't allowed to go anywhere without being driven until I had a driver's license (we lived in an extremely safe neighborhood, literally in the middle of a county park). Also, possibly related, I have an absolutely horrible sense of direction, and readily get lost in towns I've lived in for years going to places I've been at least a dozen times.

Note: my parents themselves grew up in NYC and were allowed to bike around much of the city by themselves by the time they were 10. I am amazed how much changed in the thirty years between their childhoods and my own.


I know that's not very constructive, I just wanted to share and say I'm glad whenever I see people pushing in the opposite direction.

Unfortunately there is also the risk that bystanders decide you have given your kids too much independence and call the police or otherwise harass you. Lenore Skenazy had this happen to her when she allowed her son to take a subway by himself.

It sounds like you are interested in some ideas related to Free Range parenting; Let Grow might also be of interest.

I think OP did include that: "Get stopped by the police or others, who might think they're too young to be out on their own."

I found that reading Lenore Skenazy is good for having a properly-calibrated kidnapping risk assessment but potentially extremely bad for having a properly-calibrated "being hassled by police / CPS / busybodies / etc." risk assessment. Ironically, it's the same dynamic: she reports every time it happens anywhere, so you just get this idea that everybody everywhere is hassling kids playing outside without adult supervision, independently of how frequently that actually happens. (I don't know with what frequency it actually happens.) (I stopped reading her blog many years ago.)

I'm old enough that it was normal for me to walk/bike to elementary school about 2 miles away from my house, and routinely spend many hours unsupervised in local parks and streets.  I suspect the level of risk HAS increased some, due to density and business of many ares.  But there's a HUGE safety improvement in that kids today can have cell phones and stay in touch or call for help much more easily.

I think the risk has decreased significantly since then. But the news has become worse, there are fewer kids and kids can be supervised continuously and parents have less experience. Even a second child makes you much more relaxed about real dangers. 

Yeah, having redundancy makes one much more comfortable.  (I know that's not what you meant, but it struck me funny.)

Haha, yeah I really didn't intend it to mean being relaxed because of having kids to spare but because of a more realistic expectation of what kids at each age are capable of or not. 

On the other hand, having multiple kids must create some subconscious ease of mind in that regard. That became most clear to me in those moments when there was some real or imagined risk of losing them all at once e.g. when they were on a plane without me.

normal for me to walk/bike to elementary school

What grade?

I walked to school in elementary school as well, and also had unsupervised time around the neighborhood with friends, but not until ~3rd or 4th grade?

Probably about the same - I don't remember clearly, but was probably bussed or driven (and that did happen later too, but biking was more free for post-school visiting friends and whatnot) most of the time earlier than 3rd or 4th grade.  I had a paper route at age 8, so daily unsupervised neighborhood walks were normal by then.  pro-tip for parents: don't let your young kid have an income stream if you want to protect them from a deep amount of independence and "irresponsible" spending on games, toys, junk food, and entertainment.

Addressing only the second point (technology) not the first (risks): Our neighbors have small roaming kids (near the same ages), and they have walkie-talkies that range a pretty good distance from the house.  It seems like their parents can then pretty easily/quickly contact them from inside the house, and the children can also easily/quickly contact them from outside.  It also looks like they make regular use of them for normal messages (e.g. "time for dinner, start heading home") instead of emergencies-only.

I think having these, combined with having a small group (as opposed to solo) seems to help lower a bunch of the risk factors.

It really helps if there are many children. Our small municipality of 260 rowhouses used to have 5 playgrounds and now has only two. I have an old book on architecture that says you need one playground per 64 households. But I guess with the low number of children per family these days it has gone way down. It also varies from place to place. When the houses in our street were originally built many families with kids moved in. Then everybody grew older at the same rate and when we moved in most people were old. Now, 20 years later a lot of new families move in the age distribution has become more uniform. On sunny days there are always groups of two to four kids playing together somewhere.

You should check your local laws (your point #4). Some counties seem to have very strict laws on unsupervised children and construct a child protection case very fast, which might be a reason against that.

I generally never taught my children (same age as yours) to distrust people. They know not to get into cars of people they don't know, but that's about it. The rationale is that it's a lot more realistic of a child getting lost or hurting themselves and needing help - and people wanting to help them - than all potentially bad things that could happen to them. At least here in germany, the statistics are way in favor of being optimistic than being pessimistic - most kidnappings are from divorced parents here. Last time a child got lost in my part of town - not kidnapped, just lost for an evening - was over 25 years ago, according to our local police.

My kids are free to roam the streets around the house and locations that they know for sure - after telling me where they'll go and when they'll be back -, but I made sure that they know my phone number by heart first. The radius is around 3km for the farthest friend, which they take their scooter for. They are not allowed to take the bike any further than just around the house for safety reasons, because they are not yet behaving safe enough in terms of traffic safety.

My oldest has started using the bus to one of his hobbies now as well. I printed a bus map for him, drove with him both ways once and taught him how to read the map in case he gets lost - which happened right on his first solo tour due to a technical problem and the bus had to take a detour. He also got a cheap mobile phone for those tours, which made him feel a lot safer and came in handy then.

And that's also about as far as I go for technical supervision. In case of a real emergency, I could track the phone from my cell phone provider, but in the end, I trust him to make the right choice for problems and talk to people he feels ok to ask for help.

TLDR: make sure your child is okay with the level of independence and that you feel safe enough that they can handle it. If not, work on how to build that trust in you and your children.