Independent mobility and child development

This project explored the degree to which children of different ages have the freedom to travel to school, friends, shops and other destinations unaccompanied by adults. Researchers examined evidence from ten different countries in order to identify factors affecting the independent mobility of children and the implications for child development.

Summary of results
  • Overall, Finland is the top-performing country across almost every independent mobility indicator in this study, coming second only to Germany for children’s self-reported freedom to travel on local buses alone. 
  • In 2013, Unicef published a comparative overview of child well-being across twenty-nine OECD and EU countries (Unicef, 2013) using national data from 2009 and 2010, coinciding with the start of data collection for this study of children’s independent mobility. Our report found that there is a positive correlation between Unicef well-being scores and the rank scores measuring children’s degree of freedom to travel and play without adult supervision in these countries. There is also a positive correlation between the education attainment of children, based on national Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings in 2009 and children’s degree of freedom to travel and play without adult supervision in these countries.
  • Of the three factors examined, traffic seems to be the strongest factor affecting the granting of independent mobility, with ‘strangers’ showing a weak effect and community supervision not being a factor. However, the correlation between traffic deaths and the ranking of countries for independent mobility is weak. On the other hand, almost all of the countries with the highest levels of children’s independent mobility have national policies to promote walking or cycling, and the local authorities in these countries are permitted to set lower speed limits than those defined at the national level. 

Arising from the research findings and discussion, the report makes four observations and seven recommendations.


  1. Unsafe environments for children are widely tolerated
  2. Withholding independent mobility may only defer risk to older children
  3. Action is needed to address parental concerns, road user behaviour, the physical environment, social and cultural factors
  4. Change in transport policy and behaviour may be resisted but it actually happens all the time


  1. Implement and enforce stringent road safety measures
  2. Reduce car dependency and the dominance of traffic in the public realm
  3. Put the needs of children at the heart of urban development – cities that work for children, work for everyone
  4. Explicitly incorporate children’s independent mobility into policy
  5. Adopt Daylight Saving Time to allow children to better utilise daylight hours and reduce road casualties
  6. Invest in research to consolidate and develop knowledge on children’s independent mobility
  7. Create a national challenge fund to catalyse and drive action to improving children’s independent mobility 
Project details



Ben Shaw, Policy Studies Institute

Funding programme:

Open Door

Grant amount and duration:


December 2010- December 2012

Project website