Did your child walk to school today?
If she or he did, she or he has taken part in International Walk to School Day which supports safe walking and biking to school. Only about 10 percent of children in the US walk to school regularly, no matter what the distance. Of children who live within a mile of their school, only 25 percent are regular walkers. In contrast, in 1969, about 48 percent of children walked to school.
With childhood obesity rates soaring — about 17 percent (2.5 million) children aged 2 – 19 are obese — walking is a simple, cost-effective way to get kids to incorporate some of their recommend 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity into their day.
Some may object that it simply is not safe for children to walk the streets to school. A recent study in Pediatrics offers a solution called the “walking bus,” in which parents or other trusted adults lead a group of children from their homes or some designated “bus stop” to school. Dr. Jason Mendoza of the Children’s Nutrition Research Center found a 36 percent decrease in kids driven to school after they’d participated in the Walking School Bus group. Not only did this mean more exercise for the students; it also meant less pollution and therefore less traffic. Dangers to the children walking were kept in check as they were walking in an adult-supervised group. Dr. Mendoza says that he and others are next planning to study bicycle trains, similar “caravans” of kids riding bicycles to school.
Significantly, most of the children in the research were from predominantly low-income and ethnic minority families: It’s not only children in suburban towns who can and should walk to school. When I walk to work down busy John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City, I often see small groups of children, with an adult, walking. Due to all the car, bus and other traffic, walking simply makes sense (and is very likely the only option for families who cannot afford a car).
In these days of fears of “stranger-danger” and even — a parent always worries — awareness of the story of Jaycee Dugard, it’s understandable that many parents, even in suburban towns, prefer to usher their child from door to door in the safety of the car. Parents who work may be pressed for time and driving is, theoretically, faster ( but driving can also mean having to wait in the “drop-off” line, among other delays). Quite a few children in my New Jersey town do walk to school. There are sidewalks (which some towns have in short supply) and crossing guards at regular intervals, so there are plenty of people looking out for children on their own. Just this morning, too, I saw a couple of children biking to the elementary school near my house.
My 14-year-old son and I made those daily walks (just about ten minutes) when he attended nearby schools. Sometimes it was a little hard to get going in the morning especially when the cold and rain set in. But the walk home after school was always a good way to unwind and let whatever challenges the schooldays had posed “air out.” My husband and I both walked to school and back home for a good part as children. He has strong memories of encountering numerous loose dogs in 1960s Cheshire, Connecticut. I recall how my mile or so walk, Snoopy lunch box and Hello Kitty book bag in tow, was a first whiff of independence.
If you’ve been sighing over the all-too-common phenomenon of parents driving their kids all of 5 minutes to school, here are some suggestions for getting kids to start walking, with an eye to safety and partnering with schools and law enforcement. Why not get kids started walking today?
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