Going out independently: why it’s important for children
Learning to travel, play and move around the community safely without an adult is an important part of children’s development. It helps them build the skills they need for teenage independence.
It’s good for children to learn how to go out without an adult because it:
- encourages physical activity – for example, children walking or biking to school tend to be more physically active than children who are driven to school
- builds important life skills – for example, children learn about making decisions like where to cross roads or solving problems like what to do if their bike gets a flat tyre
- promotes good mental health – for example, independence can be good for children’s confidence, self-esteem and sense of belonging
- builds community connections – for example, children might say hello to neighbours on the way to school.
A gradual approach to going out independently
To go out independently and safely, children need skills and confidence. It’s best to start working on this long before you let children go out by themselves. This way children can learn and practise at a pace that’s comfortable for them and you.
For example, your child might gradually progress through the following steps to prepare for walking home from school independently:
- Your child meets you in the schoolyard or designated pick-up area after school. You and your child walk home together.
- Your child meets you at the school gate. You and your child walk home together.
- Your child meets you at the school gate and walks 5 metres ahead of you, then 10 metres ahead, so on.
- Your child walks home from school with an older sibling or friend.
You can adapt these steps to prepare your child to go out independently to other places, like the local shops or a friend’s house.
As part of a gradual approach to increasing independence, you can help your child develop the skills they need by:
- getting your child familiar with your local area and community
- teaching your child about pedestrian and road safety
- teaching your child about personal safety in the community.
If you lay the groundwork early, your child will have basic skills and knowledge for going out independently in your community when they’re older.
Getting to know the local area and community
Getting to know your neighbourhood is a great way to build your child’s skills, knowledge and confidence, well before your child starts going out by themselves.
Here are some things you and your child can do together:
- Explore your local area. You and your child can map safe routes to local destinations, like the local playground or school, before taking the route together.
- Take public transport together and describe what you’re doing. For example, you can show your child how to get tickets. Or if you and your child miss your stop or your train is cancelled, you can talk your child through what to do next.
- Get to know people in your community – for example, your neighbours, your child’s teachers and staff at your local café. This builds a support network for you and your child.
- Participate in community programs on travelling safely to school, like biking to school programs or the annual National Walk Safely to School Day. You can speak to your school or local council about hosting programs or events.
If you want or need your child to take a certain route on their own when they’re older, it helps to first use this route when you’re walking or biking together. This way your child will be familiar and confident with the route when they start going alone or with their friends.
Pedestrian and road safety skills
Your child will learn about pedestrian and road safety by watching you, so use safe behaviour around cars, roads, footpaths and car parks. Your child will also learn a lot if you describe what you’re doing each time you walk together. For example, ‘The red person means we can’t cross the road. We have to wait until it turns green’.
You can also help your child build their pedestrian and road safety skills by:
- giving your child plenty of practice around real roads – for example, by walking with them to and from school, around the block or to the local shops
- asking your child simple questions about pedestrian and road safety as you walk together or when you’re near roads. For example, ‘Where’s the safest place to cross this road?’
- testing your older child’s pedestrian and road safety skills by letting them lead when you walk together. For example, you can stay with your child but let them decide where to walk and cross safely. You can step in if it becomes unsafe.
As your child gets older and has a good sense of how to be safe around roads and cars, you could try letting your child walk 5 metres ahead of you and then gradually increase the distance.
Personal safety skills
As your child gets older, they’ll come across unfamiliar people and situations. They might also find themselves in new places on their own.
Here are some ways you can help your child learn what to do around unfamiliar people:
- Create a circle of friends with your child to help them understand the different people in their life and how to behave around them.
- Talk your child through what to do in different situations – for example, if your child is approached by a person they don’t know. It can help to role-play situations like this so your child can practise what to do.
- Talk with your child about which people are safe to ask for help and how to recognise them – for example, police officers, security guards, store employees or teachers at your child’s school. You can point these people out to your child when you see them and show your child how to look for their uniforms or name tags.
- Tell your child never to get into a car or go with someone they don’t know.
- Talk with your child about child sexual abuse so that they understand what it is and learn how to protect their personal safety.
It’s also good to teach your child how to recognise safe and unsafe places.
For younger children, it’s best to talk about how places make them feel. You could ask your child, ‘Where do you feel happy and know that you’ll be safe? Why does it make you feel safe?’
For older children, you can explain the difference:
- ‘A safe place is where there are a lot of people around and you know people’.
- ‘An unsafe place is where you can’t see other people around who could help you’.
As your child develops more skills and confidence, you could have your child go out with older siblings or friends. This gives your child the chance to practise being without an adult but still have support.
Deciding whether children are ready to go out independently
You’ve laid the groundwork and your child wants to travel without an adult, or you want or need your child to do this. For example:
- You want your child to walk to school with an older sibling.
- Your child wants to walk on their own to a neighbour’s house.
- Your child and an older friend or sibling want to play by themselves at a local park.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to decide whether your child is ready:
- Does your child have the skills they need? Children under 10 years generally haven’t yet developed the skills they need to safely navigate driveways, cars, roads and car parks on their own.
- Will your child be with someone you trust who can keep them safe – for example, an older sibling?
- Has your child practised doing this activity before with you or an older sibling?
- Is your child going somewhere that you consider safe?
- Can your child recognise safe and unsafe places and situations?
- Does your child know what to do if they get lost?
- Does your child know important information like their home address, your name and emergency phone numbers?
- If your child needs help, will there be safe people nearby, like uniformed police officers, store employees or teachers?
- Does your child reliably follow instructions or family rules?
- If your child has a mobile phone, do they know how to use it?
- Do you and your child feel comfortable and confident with your child having this next level of independence?
If you answered yes to most or all of these questions and your child feels comfortable and follows the rules, you might give them more independence.
But if you think your child needs to build more skills, they aren’t coping well or you’re not confident, you might need to give them more practice or even go back a step.
When children are ready to go out without an adult: rules and emergency plans
If you’ve decided that your child is ready for some independence, clear rules and emergency plans are important for your child’s safety.
Set clear rules
Clear rules help your child understand where the limits are and what you expect. Rules might include where your child can go, when, and with whom. Once the rules are in place, apply them consistently.
It’s good to assess the rules regularly as your child develops. Monitoring how well your child is handling their independence can help you decide when the rules need adjusting.
Make an emergency plan
If your child is heading out without you, you and your child need a plan for what to do if there’s an emergency. This could include who your child should talk to if they need help, how your child can contact them, and where to go if it’s not safe at home or outside.
It’s good to make sure your child has important information like their home address, your name, and emergency numbers. In an emergency, this information can be useful to your child and anyone helping them. You can print this information out for your child to keep with them, or save it onto your child’s phone if they have one.
It’s good to talk with your child about going out safely when opportunities come up in your family life. For example, if you and your child see children going out alone in a movie or hear about friends going out alone, you can talk about how this fits with your family’s rules.