First Steps on the Path

Copyright Andrey Voznjuk,
I wanted to get back to that bit about navigating the neighborhood, because I think it’s a really big topic — walking alone is a life skill that takes some courage, but parents can start doing this with small steps.  We’ve already talked about the 5-minute courage work-out on this topic, but this merits even more attention.  Let’s Talk the Walk!

I think parents and kids can take their first steps on the path just start by walking together, the earlier the better. Walking side by side allows for storytelling and conversation without eye contact, letting the child’s gaze wander freely to bring the rest of the world into the conversation. There are wonderful tales, both religious and secular, that have to do with walking, and as a child listens she can imagine herself as the walker in the story. If they live in a town or development with blocks of interconnected streets they can make a regular walk with their kids, teaching how to cross streets safely, how to notice street signs, making a guessing game of which direction to turn at the next intersection in order to return home. Once there is a regular, familiar route, the child can be the leader – follow the leader is fun for a reason!

After a while, families can look for ways to vary the route just slightly, going the opposite direction, perhaps, or adding one extra block, or going at twilight. Parents can talk about how the child will walk alone in the future, tell stories about their own (hopefully positive!) experiences of walking alone. Children can learn to establish landmarks: the big pine tree, the house with the pink garage, the playground, the gas station. Parents can model how to take joy in the surroundings, admiring architecture or holiday decorations or gardens or clouds. They can listen for birds, identify smells, crunch icy puddles – bring all their senses to the experience of walking.

K. and I did this every day walking to and from school in second grade when we lived in a different house farther away. We reached a point when I could send her ahead to the next intersection to wait for me. We reached a point when we could split apart and reconnect by going different ways around the block, and we often made it into a race! These were moments for lavish praise and admiration. These were the times when I could point out her courage. “I am proud of you,” and “That was brave of you,” are encouraging, literally putting courage in. I would talk about the places she’d be able to walk to on her own in fifth grade, in sixth grade, and higher. I kept talking about the longer walks that lie in the future, about the allure of independence.

I suppose if a family is geographically challenged to find a convenient walk (either by living in the countryside or in a large cosmopolitan area), they could take this routine to the supermarket, which is generally laid out in a grid pattern of long streets (the aisles) and avenues (the wider front and back areas). While shopping together they can talk about how the child will help in the future by going down some aisles alone to get favorite items. As K. and I did, they’d reach a time when the parent can wait at the end of the cereal aisle and let the child venture alone to fetch the Cheerios and return triumphant. If a family is geographically challenged, they might try to find a neighborhood that is walkable and visit often – a neighborhood that has a convenience store or playground would be perfect. Instead of parking as close as possible to the public library, they can park farther away and walk to it from different directions. If they make these walks purposeful, the child will be able to accomplish a meaningful task. After all, the ultimate goal is to be able to walk alone with intent – to get somewhere in life.

Of course the ideal is living within walking distance of school. Even if bus service is available, I suggest trying to walk at least once a week. Those walks will become precious, especially if they are a challenge to fit into the schedule. Since Lisa and I live within walking distance of each other, it has been a pleasure leave the car at home and escort the kids back and forth, and see them more and more able to manage this together and alone.

Copyright Jacques Kloppers,
K. and B. were very excited by the courage challenge I offered when I gave them a map with an address to find, and handed over my cell phone and $6. They came back from the deli they found there with pizza, garlic bread and French fries. I congratulated them on their successful lunch adventure and also offered some grapes.

I’ll try to keep adding complexity and variety to K.’s walks as she grows older – walking at night, walking in the rain, walking in the woods, walking a new neighborhood using a street map. Step by literal step, she’s developing the courage to walk alone, facing the road ahead with a joyful heart.

One thought on “First Steps on the Path

  1. Lisa Dungate

    Thanks Barbaloot for your sweet story of you and your little man's stamina and heartfelt exploration of your neighborhood!We are glad you've found some of suggestions helpful reminders to discuss.I love that you aren't instilling fear, but helping your son navigate his world with awareness, curiosity, and security.Blessings on the journey!

  2. Barbaloot

    I take my 2 1/2 year old son for a walk nearly every day, weather permitting, and this topic has made me more mindful of how I do it.We have always talked about traffic and crossing streets safely.I don't yet frame it in terms of getting hit by a car because I don't want to scare him or lose credibility when he sees other people cross against the light and survive, so we talk about taking turns and how to know when it our turn and when it is the car's turn.Now at home, he'll play crossing the street.He'll stand still looking back and forth saying 'Wait, car, wait – pause – no car, our turn.'Now I've started talking about what direction we are going when we are returning home; thanks for that great idea!

    I can't believe my little man's stamina.Today we walked for about an hour and covered about a mile.


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