Summer strolls a safety teaching tool

Trip to friend's house or the pool ideal for learning to navigate traffic

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AKRON, Ohio -- You're 5 years old, weigh about 50 pounds and have to jump to see over the hood of an SUV. It's time to step off a curb on your way to school and it's just a bit scary. There is no one there to hold your hand, look both ways and put you on your way to learning your ABCs.

In this imperfect world, many children have no companion to help get them safely through the neighborhood. Parents often must be at work before school starts or must stay on the job until long after school lets out. Some families have only one parent, and sometimes there aren't older kids to walk with a younger one.

So it's not unusual to see tiny children walking alone to school.

Previous Beacon Journal stories have shown how dangerous walking to school can be, and the newspaper's analysis of statistics shows that African-American and poor children are more likely to walk -- and more likely to be hurt.

In Akron, Ohio, where busing is rare, a student is hit by a vehicle on an average of once every 12 days.

With school out for the summer, Lisa Pardi says now is the time for the community, particularly parents, to take to the streets and get kids ready for safe trips to school in the fall.

Pardi is injury prevention coordinator for the Safe Kids Coalition of Summit County, Ohio. She says parents have the first responsibility to teach kids safety concepts but acknowledges they need help.

"I think it does take a community to raise children," she said.

And she said the parents who think it's OK to send young kids off to school by themselves need some education themselves.

"We have the recommendation that children under 10 do not walk alone, and in addition, when I say that, it doesn't mean a 5-year-old should be walking with another 5-year-old. We want someone who is over the age of 10 with that small person."

When school is out it's a good time for parents to walk their children to school using each moment to point out the dangers and the safe practices that will serve them a lifetime.

Pardi's organization sponsors Walk This Way, a program that offers safety tips as part of International Walk to School Day. Unfortunately, it's in October, two months after the start of school.

Many communities also have a more comprehensive program called Safety Town that is sponsored by community service groups. Children walk through miniature, make-believe towns with streets, sidewalks, traffic signals and vehicles.

One trip is not enough; families must take multiple trips for the lessons to sink in. It's also important to know the school parking lot has its dangers, too. It is common to see children run between cars.

Dorothy Chlad, Safety Town's national president, started with Safety Town in 1964 and learned a lot about child development as the group evolved.

She says children must be shown safe practices repeatedly before they absorb the concepts.

She also found parents don't always know the entire lesson. For example, she heard parents warning to "look both ways" only to find the children walking into the street -- and danger -- as they looked left and right.

Both Chlad and Pardi emphasized that walking is healthy for children; it just needs to be made safer.