LIFESTYLE

What is the legal age a child can walk to school alone?

The answer isn't as simple as you might expect

Balancing kids’ need for independence with their safety can tricky for parents, particularly when it comes to the topic of them walking to and from school alone.

Children yearn to try things on their own – but as a mum or a dad, it can be hard to know when to let them start taking these small steps towards adulthood.

What is the legal age a child can walk to school alone in Australia?

While the law does have guidelines in place as to the legal age children can be left unattended, there are no specific rules as to the legal age to walk to school alone.

The age children can be left alone – and therefore, the legal age to walk to school alone – varies from state to state, and on a case-by-case basis according to specific circumstances.

Queensland

Queensland is the only state that explicitly says that children under the age of 12 cannot be left unsupervised. The law states:

A person who, having the lawful care or charge of a child under 12 years, leaves the child for an unreasonable time without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child during that time commits a misdemeanour. Maximum penalty — 3 years imprisonment. 

According to Bill Potts, of Potts Lawyers, “Leaving a child unattended can include the trip to and from school –  particularly with a child walking by themselves to school for an unreasonable distance, or if no before- or after-school care is provided for and the child is left at home until a parent comes home. Whether the time is classed as unreasonable depends on the circumstances.”

So, if you let your 11-year-old walk to school alone, for example, you won’t necessarily be up for jail time. The child’s age, how far they’ve travelling, whether they are familiar with their route and neighbourhood, and so on would all be taken into account.

2 girls
(Credit: Getty)

New South Wales

In NSW, there is no specific law that dictates at what age children can be left alone, according to Family and Community Services New South Walesas a parent, you need to use your own judgement based on your own family circumstances and the age and maturity of your children, they write.

Victoria

Similarly to Queensland, Victorian law stipulates punishment for leaving a child unattended, though it’s less severe – three months’ imprisonment. However, no specific age is given in the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005, which states:

A person who has the control or charge of a child must not leave the child without making reasonable provision for the child’s supervision and care for a time which is unreasonable having regard to all the circumstances of the case.

Western Australia, Australian Capital Territory & Tasmania

There are no specific laws in WA, the ACT or Tasmania that state an age at which you can leave children alone – and therefore allow them to walk to school alone – but according to Slater and Gordon Lawyers, “inadequate child supervision offences could apply to children of up to 16 or 18 years of age”.

South Australia & Northern Territory

Again, there is no clear-cut law here; but Slater and Gordon suggest that offences related to leaving child unattended “would likely fall under child neglect laws, which might apply in specific circumstances”.

high schoolers
(Credit: Getty)

So when should children walk to school alone?

There is no ‘magic age’ when children can walk to school on their own, says Gavin De Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, who recommends the ‘Test of Twelve’ to determine if your child is ready to head out solo.

When deciding whether your child is capable of walking to school alone, consider not only their age but also their maturity level, their knowledge and experience of the route, the distance they will need to walk, the type neighbourhood they will walk through, the availability of footpaths (so they’re not walking on the road), and the street safety measures (for example, pedestrian crossings/school crossings).

According to Care.com, the consensus seems to be that five-year-olds are too young, six- and seven-year-olds should walk in a group, and that by age 10, many kids are ready.

What safety precautions can parents take?

For children walking alone to school, Shine Lawyers shared these tips from Victoria Police:

  • Walk confidently.
  • Pay attention to what’s going on around you.
  • Don’t wear headphones, as they may stop you from hearing danger approaching.
  • Find an easy way to get the school with good crossings and as little traffic as possible.
  • Parents, plan a safe route from home to school.
  • Avoid taking shortcuts.
  • Watch out for cars at every driveway and intersection.
  • Don’t accept rides from strangers.

They also say that young children should walk with an adult.

girl and mum
(Credit: Getty)

What about taking public transport? 

Again, there are no set age limits for children using public transport alone. 

“It depends very much on the individual,” associate professor Allan Ralph from Triple P Parenting told the ABC.

“Some five-year-olds are highly competent and able at that age, while others are less so and not independent at all.”

To help kids take public transport safely, Triple P Parenting advises talking to them about how they will know when to get off the bus – such as discussing visual clues that will let them know it’s their stop. 

Also make sure they know how to get home after they get off, talk to them about what to do if they miss their stop, and do a practice run or two catching public transport with them.

All of these steps can help children navigate the journey to and from school alone with less anxiety for both kids and parents. 

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