Play in the yard
When kids are ready: 2 and up
Look for these signs: Your toddler is able to leave your side for short periods of time and is curious about exploring.
How to start: Supervise your 2- and 3-year-old closely, even if your lawn is fenced in -- there's no way to predict when she'll figure out how to unlatch a gate door, or scale a wall, or pick your thorny roses.
Once your child's 4 or 5, she's ready to play on the sidewalk or in the yard in front of your house. But watch her closely and teach her not to wander off. "Draw a large box on the sidewalk with chalk and tell her to stay inside the lines while she plays," says Marguerite Kelly, author of "The Family Almanac" advice column. Keep an eye out from your steps.
By the time she's 8, she'll probably want to hang around with neighborhood friends. Be sure she knows how far down the street she can go, that she can't pop into anyone's house without your permission, and that she's got to check in regularly.
At least one parent should keep tabs on the posse. "Several children on our street between the ages of seven and twelve play together outside, and I watch them from the kitchen window while I make dinner," says Leslie Callahan of South Bend, Indiana, the mother of two boys, ages 11 and 7.
Alix Finkelstein, a mom of two in Brooklyn, frequently writes about parenting issues.
Walk to a nearby friend's houseWhen kids are ready: 5 and up
Look for these signs: Your child can follow simple directions and has a decent sense of distance and time.
How to start: Phone the friend's parents and arrange a playdate, then tell your child exactly what to do ("Walk to Matt's house. Play for a while, then I'll get you"). Watch him from your steps or window until he arrives. Keep the playdate short, and make sure your child knows he can't leave or go to another house.
School-age kids are usually old enough to walk both ways. "When my twins were six, I let them visit a friend three doors down, but I had the mother call me when they arrived," says Kendra Isett, of Sparks, Maryland. Ask your children to alert you before they leave the house, to check in with you often while they're away, and to call before they head home so you can watch out for them.
Cross the street aloneWhen kids are ready: Around 7 or 8, depending on your child's maturity and how busy the street is
Look for these signs: Your child generally has good impulse control and is patient enough to thoroughly scan the road.
How to start: Begin teaching the basics of traffic safety when your little one is about 3 years old. "Whenever my children and I crossed a street or walked in a parking lot, I would tell them, 'Look both ways and make sure no cars are coming,'" Isett says. "Now they're eight, and when we cross the street, they make sure I look both ways!" Explain that it's safe to cross only at a corner or stop sign, and never to dart out from between parked cars.
No matter how well drilled your child is, though, he'll still need plenty of practice. Start him off on a quiet road, and follow a few feet behind him to see how he does. After a couple of weeks, stand on the other side of the street, and let him come to you. There's no rush. If you live in an area with fast-moving cars and few stop signs or traffic lights, or your child is easily distracted, wait until he's 10, or even older.
Walk or ride a bike to schoolWhen kids are ready: 8 and up
Look for these signs: Your child follows directions closely and has experience walking or biking around your street. If you live more than a few blocks from your school, or it's located by a major traffic intersection, wait several more years.
How to start: Map out the route together so you can choose the safest crossing spots and point out possible dangers, like blind driveways and sharp turns. And review some basic precautions -- your child should know to be especially careful at intersections (bikers should walk their bicycles, not ride across) and never to stop to speak to strangers, for instance. Make it clear that she can't switch routes unless you say it's okay first, and that she should never accept an invitation for a ride -- even from someone she's seen around the neighborhood.
On the first few outings, it's a good idea for you to trail behind (either on foot or in your car) to make sure everything goes okay. Later you can keep slightly looser tabs, like Liz Dressel of the San Francisco Bay Area does. "This year, I let my older daughters, who are ten and eight, ride their bikes to school together," she says. "I usually take the same route when I drive their younger sisters to their classes ten or fifteen minutes later, so I just keep an eye out to make sure nobody got a flat tire or had another problem."
Staying home aloneWhen kids are ready: 10 and up, depending on where you live
Look for these signs: Your child generally behaves well at home, can remember directions, and consistently follows general safety rules (such as not opening the door to a stranger) when you're in the house.
How to start: Begin by going out for only small blocks of time. "We first tried it when my son was eleven," says Peg Mochel of Winfield, Illinois. "I gave him my cell number and told him not to answer the door or the phone, and stayed away only twenty minutes. Even now that he's twelve, I'm never gone more than an hour and a half."
Before you head out, let your child practice dialing your cell phone number and leaving you a voicemail message (in case you don't pick up). Post emergency contact numbers near the phone, and show him how the front- and back-door locks and chains work. Be sure he knows what he is and isn't allowed to do while you're away, too. (If it's okay for him to make a snack but not to use the microwave, for instance, spell it out.) Say exactly when you'll be back -- and don't be late. 138 Time to Talk About Strangers Teach your child to be cautious around adults they don't know Alix Finkelstein
It's never too soon for kids to learn to be careful around adults they don't know. This is a tricky topic, so tailor your discussions to your child's age.
"Raise the subject when he is three and could get separated from you in a shopping mall or other busy place," recommends psychologist Anita Gurian, Ph.D., of New York University's Child Study Center. Give him a simple definition of who strangers are ("They're people you don't know").
Explain that she should never talk to a stranger, and that if one approaches her, she should tell a trusted adult. Mention the key exceptions -- for example, it's okay to talk to a police officer or a crossing guard, especially if she's in trouble. (Teach your child her name, address, and phone number so they'll be able to help her.)
Discuss how to treat acquaintances like the neighbor down the street or a store cashier. Explain that it's fine to be friendly, but not to go anywhere with a grown-up unless Mommy or Daddy says it's okay.
Once your child is school-aged, help him fine-tune his instincts. Walk him through scenarios, such as a stranger's driving up and asking for directions. Explore some acceptable responses (in this case, stepping away from the car before answering the question, then walking away, would be one. You should also note that adults don't usually ask kids for directions and it may be a warning sign). Stress that someone can look nice but still have bad intentions.
If your child travels your neighborhood on her own, go over some safe places she can duck into if she thinks someone's following her -- such as a friend's house or a store. Tell her that as a last resort she can ring the doorbell of someone's home and ask that person to phone you, without going inside the house.