Once upon a time, walking to school alone was as common for kids as playing sandlot baseball. These days, that first solo trek is a rite of passage that often doesn’t take place until at least tween-hood.

But pounding the pavement has its upsides for kids: According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, walking to school is associated with health perks like better control over blood pressure and weight, stronger bones, muscles and joints and a reduced risk of diabetes. Children who walk to school alone also learn to make decisions independently and have more confidence.

Related: Heavy Backpacks: A Health Risk Too Many Kids Carry

Factors to consider

If your kid is itching to hoof it to school by himself, first take into account the distance between home and school and how safe the route is. Then gauge his readiness by considering a variety of factors, starting with his age and level of maturity.

“Most kids younger than nine have trouble judging the speed of an oncoming car,” says psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, creator of the video series “Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids.” “However, if there’s a crossing guard on duty or your child doesn’t have to cross a busy street, he could be ready sooner.”

Related: How and When to Teach Your Child to Cross the Street

A good way to judge a child’s readiness to walk to school alone is to play the “what if” game, suggests Deborah Gilboa, MD, a parenting expert and family physician at Squirrel Hill Health Center in Pittsburgh. Come up with as many hypothetical situations as you can think of and ask him how he would respond in each one. What would he do if a stranger approached him or pulled up alongside him in a car, for example? What if he fell and was too hurt to keep walking, or was bitten by a dog? “If your kid has good common sense answers, he’s ready,” says Gilboa.

Related: Injury: The Number One Killer of Kids in the US

On your mark, get set, go

Once you decide to give your child the green light to walk to school by himself, don’t just wave him out the door. Here are some smart tips for launching him safely.

Establish rules. Make sure your child understands and will follow every one of them, advises Kennedy-Moore. Will you expect him to head straight home every day or will he be allowed to stop at the corner store or hang at the playground with friends? How will he stay in contact with you?

If he’s going to be out and about alone, he should have a cell phone (and make sure it’s fully charged before he leaves the house). Decide when and how often you want him to touch base: a call or text as soon as he arrives at school and each time he leaves one destination and arrives at another is easier to remember than checking in every half hour.

Related: Is Your Child Ready to Stay Home Alone?

Conduct a trial run. “With most skills, first we teach them to our kids and then we let them take over,” says Kennedy-Moore. Before you let your child walk to school alone, have him tell you the way he thinks it should be done and then have him lead you along the route. Let him choose the path, decide when and where to cross (with the light, at the crosswalk), and which turns to take.

Have her pair up. Walking with a friend or sibling is more fun then going it alone. Be sure everyone — including your kid’s pal— is on the same page regarding rules. And if you’re sending a young child out with older one, make clear that the older sibling will be in charge on the way to school but will treat his little brother or sister with kindness and respect. Squabbles should be saved for when everyone is safely at home. “If you learn that either child didn’t stick to the agreement, the walking to school solo privilege should be suspended for a while,” says Gilboa. 

Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a New York City-based writer and editor who specializes in parenting, health and child development. She’s also the mom of two teen girls.