Every day should be a ‘walk to school day’
October 7, 2007
When I was growing up I used to walk to school every day uphill in a snowstorm. Actually, it only snowed in the winter and it wasn’t uphill. But we did walk to school, home for lunch, then back to school again. It was what kids did. In 1969 nearly 90 percent of children who lived within a mile of school used walking or bicycling as their primary mode of travel. In recent years, that percentage has decreased to just over 60 percent. Kids who live farther away walk or bike even less.
Why don’t kids walk to school anymore? One big reason is that schools are farther away. The total number of schools has declined, while the total number of kids in school has increased. Schools Ð especially high schools with their sports fields, tech centers, and huge student body populations – need lots of space, space that’s hard to find in an existing urban neighborhood. And since kids don’t walk any more, the schools also have enormous parking lots.
Parents are busier. In the 1960s my mother stayed at home and sent us off to walk the quarter-mile to school, somewhat confident that we would get there and back home again. Now, with both parents working, one parent will drop the kids off to school on the way to work. There is the ever-present fear of “stranger danger” Ð someone lurking en route to kidnap the kids.
Many of our communities are not built for walking. Carson Middle School doesn’t even have sidewalks leading to it. Many students at Empire Elementary School cross busy Edmonds Drive to get to school Ð scary for a child, even with a friendly crossing guard there to help. Some who walk to Bordewich Bray have to cross Division Street with no crosswalks and no sidewalks. Then all the parents driving their kids to school make for more traffic congestion and air pollution around schools, making it more unpleasant and dangerous to walk, thus leading more parents to drive their kids.
So who cares? That’s progress, isn’t it? More cars, more traffic congestion? But children lose out by not walking to school. The gradually expanding geography of childhood – from house to back yard to neighborhood to school and parks as independence and skills increase – is cut short. Now, kids are driven everywhere with no opportunity to notice the leaves turning in the fall, to taste the berries on the neighbor’s Virginia creeper (“Yucky,” reported my daughter Anna and her friend Rebecca when they were 5).
Then there’s the increasing rate of childhood obesity in this country, which more than tripled from 1975 to 2004. There still would be obese and overweight children if everyone started walking to school – diet plays a role – but the lack of exercise in the daily lives of our children does contribute to today’s obesity epidemic.
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Is it possible to get more children to walk to school? One way to do it is to provide safe routes and to encourage walking and bicycling. Efforts to do that are taking place in Carson City. In 2001, local walking advocacy group Muscle Powered and the Carson City School District organized “Walk our Children to School Day” and were astonished when 2,400 parents and children walked to school that day. Since then, various schools have continued walk-to-school and safe-routes-to-school programs, including a popular “walking Wednesdays” program started last year at Seeliger School by P.E. teacher Michelle van Voorst.
This year the Carson City School District has received Safe Routes to School grants to support walking Wednesdays and other programs at three elementary schools. School Board member Barbara Howe spearheaded the grant writing effort. I asked her why she thought kids should walk to school. Barbara, who is a public health professional, answered, “For health.” She said walking can contribute not only to the physical health of children, but to intellectual development and social health. Those of us who walked to school remember the opportunity to walk, talk, and goof around with friends. She said, “I think it’s frightening that we have kids coming into school offices crying because they missed their ride and don’t know how to get home. No adult has ever walked with them and shown them how to get around their neighborhood.”
How will the funding recently received by the school district help to get kids walking again? It’s hard to change the habits of an entire generation, but change might come in increments. As Barbara Howe said, “If we could get just 20 percent of our kids to walk, that would be 20 percent fewer cars around schools in the morning, making it safer to walk and ride.”
What about “stranger danger?” While statistics show that the rate of child abductions is low in school areas, even one stranger abduction is too many. In order to help assure the safety of their kids, parents in some communities have started “walking school buses,” where parents volunteer to walk groups of children to school. Information on walking school buses is available online at http://www.walkingschoolbus.org/.
• Fresh Ideas: Starting conversations by sharing personal perspectives on timely and timeless issues. Anne Macquarie, a private-sector urban planner, is a 19-year resident of Carson City.
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