Children walk home alone after a day at school in Pontevedra, Spain, in September as part of the country's “Road to School” program. (Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — The idea of 6-year-old children walking to school alone would horrify a lot of parents. In Spain, however, parents are actively being encouraged to let their kids walk off without them.

Since 2010, a program now implemented in seven communities has tested how much space parents should allow their children. According to researchers there, the answer is: a lot. Allowing even first-graders to walk to school alone builds their self-confidence, the researchers argue. About a fourth of all students ages 6 to 12 regularly walk to school without being accompanied by parents, according to statistics seen by news agency AFP.

In the United States, such practices would likely be much more controversial. Cases of “free range” parents who allowed their children to play outside without observing them have repeatedly made headlines in recent years. American children spend about 90 percent of their time indoors in their parents' home, according to a recent study by the University of California.

The debate over how much leeway younger children should be given isn't unique to the United States, however. Psychologist Haim Ginott coined the term “helicopter parents” in the 1960s, referring to parents who constantly monitored their children. Since then, according to Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, concerns over allowing 6-year-olds to walk to school alone have been on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Surveys show that the share of German 6-year-olds who walk to school alone declined to 17 percent in 2000 from 91 percent in 1970. Figures from the United Kingdom show a similarly dramatic decline.

Such numbers worry education researchers in Europe who argue that children should be allowed to experiment as much as possible to develop skills from an early age onward. As European countries reconsider they might end up reversing the decades-long decline.

As in Spain, public officials in other European countries are openly encouraging that change. German authorities are regularly advising parents on how to make 6- or 7-year-olds accustomed to walking to school alone. “A good idea for parents is to accompany children at first. But we do recommend that young schoolchildren should be getting used to walking in the public alone,” German police official Martin Kobusynski was quoted as saying by the country's public broadcaster NDR.

The Spanish experiment is also being supported by local schools, which have agreed to set up procedures to prevent children from going missing, for instance. The parents of children who do not arrive at school are informed right away. Volunteers watch traffic at some of the most dangerous street intersections.

Speaking to AFP, Italian psychologist Francesco Tonucci, whose research is behind the Spanish program, explained the concept:

When I was a kid, we played in the streets, where we would discover the world . . . It feels like a form of abandon, but it's a way of loving them: I leave you alone because I trust you.

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