Researcher: You’d be surprised how late kids develop the skill to cross streets alone

 In Grade-schooler, Preschooler

It’s a big, nerve-wracking leap of faith: letting your child cross the street alone for the first time…and the second…and the eighty-ninth….

Whether they live in an urban, suburban, or rural place, safely crossing a road with traffic is a basic skill kids need to learn. We can start teaching the basics in toddlerhood. But you might be surprised when most kids actually nail it.

Age 5?

6?

8?

10?

Street-crossing skills happen later than you might think.

How about not until 14, according to new research. That’s the age when kids finally seem to have fully developed the judgment and motor skills needed to safely cross a busy road consistently.

“Your kid maybe has a little more difficulty making the decisions and timing their movements than you think they do,” says Elizabeth O’Neal, a researcher in the University of Iowa’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

It’s not necessarily because they’re careless.

It’s more developmental: how they think and move, at different ages.

Why it’s tricky:

A new study homed in on two big skills that are well-known factors in safe crossings:

  • Kids’ ability to choose a safe gap between cars, considering the cars’ speed and distance away
  • Kids’ timing, when they physically take a step to cross.

In an immersive, 3-D virtual environment lab where simulated traffic actually looked real, children ages 6, 8, 10, 12, and 14 (and a group of adults for comparison) were asked to cross the street, 20 times each. Virtual cars were going 25 mph, typical for a residential neighborhood, along the simulated one-lane street, which had no crosswalk or traffic signal.

Under age 14, all the kids had trouble consistently choosing gaps in traffic that were big enough for them to get across safely.

Only the children in the oldest group, the 14-year-olds, crossed without incident, the Iowa researchers reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. The 6-year-olds were “struck” by a car in the simulation 8 percent of the time; 8-year-olds, 6 percent of the time; 10-year-olds, 5 percent of the time; and 12-year-olds, 2 percent of the time.

While kids tend to choose a gap to cross similar to the size of a gap an adult would choose, they don’t start moving as quickly as adults and are at higher risk of injury because of that. Once they do get going, even 6-year-olds can get across the road as fast as a grown-up.  The issue is their delay in taking that first step.

“Young kids look at traffic and perceive it in the same way that adults do, but they end up with less time to spare or a riskier type of crossing,” says O’Neal, the first author of the study. “At 12 years old, they really start to compensate by crossing at bigger gaps than adults.”

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How to teach safer crossings:

That doesn’t mean you need to hold your kid’s hand through middle school. (Toddlers and preschoolers, yes!) But it’s a good reminder not to assume too much, too fast.

As they’re learning:

Model it. Since kids are watching everything we do, start from stroller days consistently using crosswalks, waiting for “walk” signs, and not using devices or headphones on the street yourself. Keep it up even after you think your child is old enough to cross alone.

Talk it up. Say it when you do it: “Look left, right, left.” Even before kids master knowing left from right, they’ll absorb the idea that you look both ways and then once again.

Practice. Around ages 6 to 8, most kids are ready for trial crossings without holding your hand. Show the routine of stopping, asking yourself “Are there any cars?”, and other safety tips. Then let your child try, while you’re watching. Many safety experts recommend holding at this stage of “no crossing unless someone is watching” for a couple of years.

Take it slow. The National Center for Safe Routes to School recommends that kids under 10 be supervised by an adult when walking near or around traffic and that older kids continue to be supervised until they show consistent safe behavior. (A mature 10-year-old will handle a crossing better than an immature 14-year-old.)  Know that even when children have mastered a familiar route, though, they need to learn to apply their skills to new locations—and that takes some guidance and practice.

What to tell bigger kids:

Don’t take shortcuts mid-block. Cross the street at crosswalks, where there are stop signs or street signals whenever possible, or cross at an intersection. Explain why: Drivers are much less likely to see you mid-block. (O’Neal told me this one is especially important given that kids haven’t been found to consistently make good choices in street scenarios where traffic doesn’t stop.)

Don’t assume drivers will stop when they should. Just because you’re in a crosswalk doesn’t mean that drivers will stop (you might be in the right, but you’d be hit!). Before beginning to cross, try to make eye contact with the driver to make sure the car comes to a stop.

At places where traffic doesn’t stop, wait for a big-enough gap. Be patient waiting out a safe opportunity to cross. (When you practice with your child, remember that kids need to wait for a larger gap between cars than you’d choose for yourself, O’Neal says.)

Put away the phone. Don’t use devices or wear headphones while walking near traffic, period. That one may be the hardest for tweens and teens, especially in cities.

Give it time.

It’s a long road to completely breathing easy about your child’s street-crossing skills. But whether he or she is new to crossing streets alone or has done it countless times walking to and from school, the more skill-honing practice they get, the better for both of you.

—Senior editor Juanita Covert is a mom of three (ages 6, 8, and 11) who works from her home in Traverse City, Michigan. She’s also a busy hockey mom, softball mom, and Girl Scout troop leader.

Photos from top: Christian Scheja/Flickr, Richard Drdul/Flickr

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