Smarter Travel: Walking

The importance of walking with your child from an early age

When did walking become a thing of the past? When did the whole world suddenly start driving everywhere and finding excessive traffic congestion an acceptable part of a daily routine? This isn’t just a local phenomenon; it is an issue that is being realised across the world where car dependency has reached unprecedented heights, the impact of which will become more evident as time progresses. Already there have been several reports on the rise in childhood obesity which is being attributed in part to reduced physical activity within that age group. Increased car dependency brings a multitude of issues ranging from social impacts to environmental impacts.  For the purposes of this article, it was felt best to focus on the social impact of car dependency as these are often the last thing people think about when thinking about the impact of transport and how as a parent you can alter this for your child.

Think about a simple journey to a nearby shop

Option 1: Drive your child to a nearby shop

The positive side of this option is that it is quick, safe and convenient but think about your child’s experience, firstly all they can see is the back of a car seat when they converse with you, secondly, you cannot give them your full attention as you are focussing on the road and lastly, your child has a limited perception of their local area. Then there is the issue of finding parking.

Option 2: Walk your child to a nearby shop

This option is often less favoured and often viewed as inconvenient but the benefits of this mode are beyond what you would imagine. Walking with your child provides you as a parent with the opportunity to instil road safety skills at an early age, exercise, an opportunity to engage with their local environment and most importantly with you. Another important point is that walking regularly to local venues with your child enables them to consider alternative modes as the norm instead of prioritising car transport at every turn as they get older.

Social benefits of walking

  • Walking is social and walking to various local venues not only provides your child with an opportunity to engage with their local environment and a sense of space but also provides you with an opportunity connect with the wider community.
  • Walking can improve road safety skills. Walking with your child enables you to teach them how to approach crossings and navigate safely so that when they come of age to walk alone to school or otherwise you can trust that their road sense is second nature. Some tips to share with your child are provided below.
  • Walking with your child to various local venues or in particular school can also bring economic benefits. The money you can save on petrol could be used for more important family events.
  • Weather is often seen as a major deterrent to walking short distances even the slightest drizzle but consider this….opting for the car at the slightest drizzle or gust of wind removes the opportunity to educate your child about choosing appropriate clothing and building their immune system. In my experience with schools, many young children do not have or appreciate appropriate clothing for our Irish weather.
  • Walking with your child, particularly for the school journey helps incorporate exercise into their daily routine; this can help counter the risk of childhood obesity and illness later on in life. Many parents identify that they live too far from their childs school to even consider walking but what about parking away from the school and waking the remainder? This provides your child with the best of both worlds and also removes the experience of heavy traffic congestion and stress of parking at peak school times.

Here are some great tips to share with your kids:

Children learn through experience. There is no magic age when children are old enough to walk without an adult. But, as a parent, you should decide when your child has the skills and experience to deal with traffic safely without you. As you walk with your child, remember these safety tips:

Walking and Crossing Streets:

  • Engage your child at all stages of a journey. Ask them to think about what would be the safest thing to do i.e. stay on the footpath, hold your hand. Where there are no footpaths, walk facing traffic and as close to the edge of the road as possible.
  • Look and listen for cars and trucks backing out of driveways and exiting laneways.
  • Stress that they should always cross the street at traffic signals, pedestrian crossovers, school crossings with a crossing guard or at intersections with stop signs.  Never cross at random with your child where drivers are not expecting to encounter pedestrians. Children see children do…
  • Younger children need to understand that they need an adult to cross.
  • Take a few steps back and stand back from the roadway while waiting to cross.  Don’t stand right beside the curb.
  • Look both ways for oncoming traffic (Stop, Look and Listen for traffic) and don’t step onto the road until it’s safe to do so. I always suggest the term ‘operation eyeball’ where children actively make eye contact with a driver before their cross.
  • Insist your child walks across the street and to never run, while crossing the street.  By running, you risk tripping and falling in the middle of the road.
  • Wear bright, reflective clothing when walking in darkness or near-darkness.

Crossing at Traffic Signals:

  • Take a few steps back and stand back from the roadway while waiting to cross.  Don’t stand right beside the curb.
  • Look for a pedestrian pushbutton.  If one is present, push the button to activate the Walking Person signal indication.  Otherwise, you may not receive the Walking Person signal and you may not be given enough time to safely cross to the other side.
  • Understand the meaning of pedestrian signal indications (Walking Person, Flashing Hand, Steady Hand)
  1. The Green Man indicates that it is safe to start crossing.
  2. The Flashing Orange Man indicates that the traffic signal will change soon and that if you are already crossing, you should finish crossing to the other side – do not turn back.  If you have not already started crossing, don’t start.
  • In general, only start crossing during the Walking Person signal.  Do not start to cross if you see the orange man.
  • Stay within the pedestrian crosswalk markings while crossing.  This is where you are most clearly visible to drivers and where drivers will expect to see pedestrians.
  • Walk, don’t run, while crossing the street.  If you start to cross during the Walking Person signal, you will have plenty of time to cross if you are walking.  By running, you risk tripping and falling in the middle of the road.
  • Pay attention to traffic and your surroundings at all times.  If you are using a hand-held electronic device, such as a cell phone, video gaming unit or music player, put it away so that you can watch and hear traffic around you and your child sees you doing this.
  • Make eye contact with oncoming drivers and cyclists before proceeding across their path, especially vehicles intending to turn.  Drivers may be focused on looking for gaps in traffic to merge into, and not paying attention to pedestrians crossing the road.  Pay particular attention at 3 critical points of conflict:
  1. Vehicles turning right across your path at the start of your cross;
  2. Vehicles turning left across your path from the opposite side of the street at the middle of your cross;
  3. Vehicles turning right across your path at the end of your cross.

Provided by Ellen O Sullivan, Ellen has worked with schools as part of An Taisces Green-Schools Travel Programme since 2009 to encourage more sustainable modes of transport for the school journey. If you would like to know more about sustainable travel journeys please visit or