Kids are putting on their backpacks, sharpening their pencils, and returning to class, but how many of them will actually walk to school? Not many compared to eras past. In 1969, some 50 percent of children walked or biked to school, and 87 percent of children living within one mile of school got a little morning exercise. Today, fewer than 15 percent of kids walk or bike to school.
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In the second grade, I started walking home from school. After the final bell rang, my spindly 8-year-old legs carried me two miles from Daves Avenue Elementary School to my home where my mom was waiting for me. I walked with a pack of neighborhood kids: Carol, Amy, Christina, Kenny. Along the way we collected sticks and rocks, blew the fuzz off dandelions, and stuffed our pockets with roly-polies.On these walks, I learned how to outrun fierce guard dogs and hop over King Snakes basking in the sun. I learned how to ask strangers gardening in their front yards if I could pick cherries from their trees. I gained independence, confidence, and basic survival skills.
My daughter is 7-years-old and in the second grade and my son is 5-years-old and just starting kindergarten. Both attend a public school in San Francisco. They will probably never walk to school. In our city, children don't got to their neighborhood school. Rather they're assigned to schools dispersed throughout the city in order to create diverse schools with children from all different backgrounds. And so we live nearly four miles from school.
The walk would require crossing countless busy streets, passing under freeways, and walking through rough neighborhoods. If I let my kids walk to school, I'd probably make front-page news.Lenore Skenazy, a Manhattan mom and author of the parenting book Free Range Kids, who made newspaper headlines when she sent her son on the New York subway at age 9 in April 2008. In a column for the New York Sun, she wrote, "Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn't strike me as that daring, either. Isn't New York as safe now as it was in 1963? It's not like we're living in downtown Baghdad."
While some parents these days believe their kids are growing up in a scary world, Skenazy argues that raising children in the United States now isn't more dangerous than it was when today's generation of parents were young. "Crime today is basically where it was at in the 1970s," she says. "And we're assuming kids can't do the same things we did ourselves as kids. This doesn't make sense."
Skenazy is an advocate for kids riding solo on public transit and she also believes children should walk to school. Her son started walking a mile to school with a friend when he was in the fourth grade. "They stop at the deli for something to eat--usually some chocolate, something unhealthy," says Skenazy, who lives near the Empire State Building. "And they even stop to play at the park. My son loves it."
What about cars? Isn't Skenazy afraid that her little one might get hit? She's quick to point out that 50 percent of kids run over by cars while walking to school are hit by parents who are driving their kids to school. "This is nonsense," she says. Also, Skenazy has spent a lot of time walking with her son and teaching him how to safely cross the street.Safe Routes to School (SRTS), a network of nonprofits, government agencies, and schools supporting a movement to encourage kids to walk to school. In fact, driving to school has so thoroughly penetrated the K-8 consciousness that school "arrival" and "dismissal" times have been linguistically recast as "drop-off" and "pickup" hours.
As a result, kids today are less active, less independent, and less healthy. In fact, one recent study found that kids ages 10 to 13 who walked to school daily were 80 per cent less likely to be obese than those who got a ride.Another study published last month found that walking to school reduces stress in kids and may curb the risk of heart disease.
Researchers at the University of Buffalo, N.Y., took a group of 40 kids, ages 10 to 14, and had half sit in a comfy chair and watch a 10-minute slide show of images of a suburban neighborhood, ending with an image of a suburban school. The idea was to simulate a typical drive to school.The other half "walked" one-mile on a treadmill at a self-selected pace, wearing a book bag containing 10 percent of their body weight. As they walked, the images of the suburban neighborhood were projected onto a screen. These kids were walking to school.
After a 20-minute rest period, all kids took a test--aimed at putting them under some stress.The heart rates of children who walked to school jumped up by only about three beats per minute when put under stress, compared with 11 beats in kids who traveled by car. Similarly, the rise in systolic blood pressure was more than three times higher, and the change in perceived stress about twice as high, for the passive commuters.
Another reason to let your kids walk is to help reduce neighborhood traffic. As much as 20 to 30 percent of morning traffic can be generated by parents driving their children to schools, according to SRTS. If you drive around nearly any town or city around 8 a.m., you'll quickly realize that this fact must be true when you notice the stream of minivans inching along the road.My mother tells me she notices more moms driving around my hometown with carloads of kids now than she did when I was young. "I don't think any of the children on the street are walking to Daves Avenue," she says. This saddens me. These kids don't know what they're missing out on: snakes, dandelions, shiny rocks, perfect climbing trees.
Did you walk to school as a child? Do you allow your children to walk to school? Why or why not?
Photo: Flickr/D. Sharon Pruitt