The unexpected benefits of letting my 10-year-old ride around the neighbourhood

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

On any given weekend you might find a pile of twisted metal and wheels in my front yard. It can only mean one thing - it's our turn to host a gang of bike-riding boys, a.k.a my son's best friends.

It was about a year ago that my then 10-year-old began joining his friends for bike rides around the neighbourhood. Although I always liked the idea of free-range parenting in theory, it was another thing to put it into practice.

Rules were quickly implemented- only ride on the footpath (in NSW this was allowed up to and including age 12), always wear a helmet, be courteous to pedestrians and stick together.

It took a long time to get comfortable with the idea of my child being out in the world without me. My heart would lurch if I heard an ambulance siren go off while he was out, certain he'd been hit by a car. I'd want to know his locations and time he'd be home and would check in with his friends' parents to see if they had spotted the boys.

Gradually we have loosened the reins and the group have a lot more freedom. Now that most of them have phones, they organise themselves and see who is free to ride, then ride from house to house picking each other up. They choose a destination - usually a park or someone's house, if an adult is present. (In summer they favour houses with swimming pools, in winter a large yard wins out, and they take a soccer ball). Sometimes they'll stop in a convenience store to buy a Slurpee. It's all pretty innocent stuff, and I have to admit I love not having to play Uber driver to my children all weekend.

Once my son had mastered riding with friends, we also allowed him to walk or ride to and from school a few days per week in his last year of primary school. This places us in the minority - across Australia, more than two in three Australian children and teenagers are being driven to school, with experts concerned that we are raising a 'back-seat generation'.

It's not just a concern for children's expanding waistlines and declining activity levels, it also contributes to traffic-clogged streets.

When I was a kid it was normal to walk to school from second grade and join in with packs of unsupervised kids playing after school and on weekends. From the age of 12 or so we'd even take ourselves off to the local swimming pool.

Drive around many neighbourhoods these days though and the streets are empty. Our family is lucky to live in a safe, close-knit suburb where neighbours look out for each other. It certainly made our decision to give our kids a bit more freedom easier. It's helped that I've noticed improvements in my son's confidence and ability to take responsibility and self-organise as well, crucial skills as he moves in to high school.

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I'm not surprised at the emerging research that shows that allowing children some independence in getting around town in their late primary school years has beneficial effects on their wellbeing.

Dr Lisa Gibbs and a team from the University of Melbourne's McCaughey VicHealth Centre for Community Wellbeing, studied children between the ages of 10-12 who were allowed to travel independently.

Their study found that "children were initially nervous about travelling unaccompanied by a parent, but quickly came to enjoy the feeling of freedom and actively seek greater opportunities for mobility."

The study confirmed that the late stage of primary school is a critical period for developing children's confidence and travelling independence without their parents, helping to prepare them for commuting to high school.

Another crucial finding was that "children's mobile skills and confidence didn't just happen, but were developed gradually over time."

Kids may be apprehensive about being independent and will probably make mistakes along the way - but that's all part of the learning process.

Seeing my children enjoy bike riding has led to an unexpected benefit.  My husband and I have recently bought bicycles too so we can go on family adventures as well as beating the middle-aged spread. And I've discovered that riding down hills with the wind in your hair is as fun as it was when I was a kid.