Why We Walk to School

zozowalk-to-school-posterWe live in a safe, clean, suburban neighborhood, three-quarter’s of a mile from the school where my son attends kindergarten. We walk him to and from school almost every day. I wouldn’t think this would surprise anyone. Yet, I’ve had people stop to offer me rides home, then be surprised when I say we choose to walk. I’ve had people assume we must not own a car, or are not able to drive. But no, we choose to walk.

And in the summer, we walk to swim lessons, the park, the library, and out to lunch.

Here’s why we walk [Note: I’ve also made a handout with summaries of this information, called “The Benefits of Walking Your Child to School.”]

For my son:

  • Walking to school can help my son do better in school.
    • Exercise: Kids who exercise pay better attention in school, are less moody, and have better impulse control. (Source, another source, another and another, and a final one for good measure)
    • Time in nature: Spending time outside and connecting to the natural world improves academic performance, ability to concentrate in the classroom, and improves self control. (Source, source, and more info on the benefits of nature.)
    • My son is a very active, squirrelly kid who struggles with impulse control, so I really think that our daily walk is an essential part of his success at school.
  • On our walk, there’s plenty of learning opportunities that don’t happen at school:
    • Nature: Nature provides an always-changing experience on our walks…. and we have time to stop and observe, ask questions, and learn. Yesterday, we looked at these pinecone-like seed pods (I don’t know the name of the plant), which over the past few weeks have been falling to the ground, and then slowly, gradually opening up to reveal bright red berries – we talked about how those berries probably appeal to birds who eat them, fly away, and poop them out, propagating that species of plant. Today, we found a bird leg… just the leg, which led to a conversation about what might have eaten the rest of the bird.
    • Science and Engineering: A few months ago, we got to watch the progress of digging a trench and installing drains and irrigation. Recently, we’ve seen them cut down a large tree (and we got to see the rotted out core, which showed why they’d cut it), then break up the stump, and haul it away. A new development of town homes has provided an on-going experience of the construction industry.
    • Traffic rules and navigation: We get lots of practice at looking both ways before you cross the street – and knowing what you’re looking for and making judgments about whether it’s safe to cross. He’s learned the names of all the streets, and learned about addresses, alternate routes, bus stops, parking rules, turn signals, and more.
  • Teaching a lifelong habit of walking instead of driving: Amongst children 5 – 15, 15% of their total trips are walking. As they get older, it’s 7 – 9%. Source  The more we turn to driving as our default mode, the more our children will do the same. We choose, instead, to role model deciding to walk whenever possible.
  • Social / Independence Benefits: For now, we get a chance to interact some with the (few) other families that walk back and forth to school along our route. Some of the older kids in the neighborhood have a “walking bus” where a group of them walk home together. This gives them a chance to connect with and socialize with these other kids, and also helps them build skills at independently navigating their world.
  • Exercise: He also gets all the health benefits of walking, as described below, plus a reduced risk of obesity.

For both of us:

  • Walking home from school together is a great chance to re-connect and catch up on all the news of the day. If we drive home, it’s about four minutes, and my mind is mostly focused on driving. Walking is more relaxed, slower paced, and doesn’t take much of my attention, so we can be much more tuned in to each other.
  • We also have a good relationship with his teacher, partially because we see her briefly every day at drop-off time and at pick-up. It often gives us the chance for that ten second check in on his day.

For me:

  • Free Exercise. When he started school this fall, and I suddenly had lots of kid-free time on my schedule, I thought of joining a gym. But, based on my past experience, I’m lousy at going to the gym, and I mostly waste the money I’m paying for a membership. Walking is free, with no expensive equipment or specialty clothing required. The only time I ever managed to go to the gym was when I had a scheduled obligation – a class I was signed up to take, or a friend I was meeting. The walk to school means a scheduled obligation twice every weekday – I gotta kid the kid to school, and I gotta pick him up.
  • Regular exercise. Plenty or research shows that more short bouts of exercise is better for our heart and our metabolism than a few long bouts. Walking him to school, dropping him off and coming home is 1.5 miles, and about 35 minutes of exercise to start my day. Then, after a day of sedentary work at my computer, I have another 35 minutes. In an average week, I walk at least 12 miles – about four-and-a-half hours of exercise.
  • Healthy Exercise:
    • Healthy for my heart: Walking improves my blood pressure and my cholesterol (Source), and reduces my risk of coronary heart disease and stroke by 34-35% (Source).  It also reduces risk of diabetes. (Source)
      • “Protection [from cardiovascular events] was evident even at distances of just 5½ miles per week and at a pace as casual as about 2 miles per hour.” (Source)
    • Healthy for my brain:
      • “Nine years later, the walkers underwent brain scans, which revealed that those who had walked more had greater brain volume than those who walked less. Four years after that… 116 people showed signs of memory loss or dementia. Those who had walked the most … about 7 miles each week — were half as likely to have cognitive problems as those who walked the least.” (Source)
    • Healthy for my bones and joints:
      • “In just one mile, a typical runner’s legs will have to absorb more than 100 tons of impact force. …walkers have a much lower (1% to 5%) risk of exercise-related injuries than runners (20% to 70%).” (Source)
      • “Healthy postmenopausal women who walk approximately 1 mile each day have higher whole-body bone density than women who walk shorter distances. Walking is also effective in slowing the rate of bone loss from the legs.” (Source)
      • Note: Adding 60 seconds of high impact exercise (running, jumping jacks, jogging up stairs, or sudden backwards steps) to a walk will further strengthen your bones. (Source)
    • Reduces risk of breast and colon cancer (source). I have a family history of both.
  • Efficient use of time: For picking him up at 3:30 in the afternoon, it honestly takes the same amount of time to walk as to drive. Driving there takes about 4 minutes. But… if I want to find a space in the parking lot, I have to leave the house at 3:10. Then I sit in the parking lot for 15 minutes, then pick him up, then drive home… 35 – 40 minutes round trip, just like walking. If I’m too late for a parking space, I have to get in the giant line of cars to pick up. Again, about 35 – 40 minutes round trip. And here, my time is doing double-duty for exercise and kid pick-up.
    • “Because walking is less intensive than running, you have to walk for longer periods, get out more often, or both to match the benefits of running. As a rough guide, the current American Heart Association/American College of Sports Medicine standards call for able-bodied adults to do moderate-intensity exercise (such as brisk walking) for at least 30 minutes on five days each week or intense aerobic exercise (such as running) for at least 20 minutes three days each week. That makes running seem much more time-efficient — but if you factor in the extra warm-ups, cool-downs, and changes of clothing and shoes that runners need, the time differences narrow considerably. Add the time it takes to rehab from running injuries, and walking looks pretty good.”  (Source)
  • Time to listen to podcasts! When I’m walking alone, I get a chance to listen to some of my favorites /Filmcast, NPR Politics, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Vinyl Café, the Moth.
  • Walking also improves your mood, and reduces depression. (Source, Source)

For my marriage: My husband and I are often able to walk together in the morning. This gives us connection time with our son on the way to school, and with each other on the way home. Sometimes we use that connection to catch up on family business, sometimes to have deep conversations about how we’re doing emotionally or relationship wise, sometimes it’s catching up on politics and world news, and sometimes it’s picking each other’s brain for help solving a problem one of us is working on. Just having that slow-paced, in synch time together is a lovely way to start the day.

For the environment and my community:

  • 28% of all car trips in America are less than one mile. (Source) When people travel a distance of 1 – 3 miles, 90% use a car. (Source)  Many of these short trips are about driving kids to school or activities. And that’s hard on the environment.
    • “Emissions from cars are greatest when an engine is cold. The first few minutes when you start up and then drive your car produces the highest emissions because the emissions control equipment has not yet reached its optimal operating temperature. On a cold day a petrol car may take up to 10km [6.2 miles] to warm up and operate at maximum efficiency. One of the best ways individuals can contribute to reducing air pollution is to leave the car at home for short trips and walk instead.”  (source)
    • “Transportation accounts for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions, and passenger cars are responsible for the majority, more than 60%, of those emissions.” (Source)
    • “If a family walks to school twice a week rather than driving, they can reduce their carbon emissions by 131 pounds each year… If half of the students at an average-sized elementary school choose to walk… [saves] 36 tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year…. equal to the carbon removing abilities of 1,000 trees.” (Source)
  • When we walk, we do little things to help the community: pick up litter when we see it (impressively rare on our stretch of road), move away leaves that are clogging the storm drains, fix the lost cat sign that’s falling off the pole, pick up a trash bin that was knocked over in the wind. They’re little things that take a few seconds when you’re just walking by, but would never happen if everyone drove by.

Barriers to walking to school (Source) – and how to overcome them

About 55% of children travel to school in a private car. (Source) Some of these children may live far enough away that they have the option to take a bus but are choosing to drive. But many of them are children who live within what is considered “walking distance” from a school. What stops the families from walking?

Barrier Percentage of parents
Distance to school: 61.5
Traffic-related danger: 30.4
Weather: 18.6
Crime danger: 11.7
Opposing school policy: 6.0
Other reasons (not identified): 15.0

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2005)

Distance to School

In 1969, 48% of elementary school students walked or biked to school. In 2009, it was just 13%. Yes, some of that is because fewer kids live less than a mile from their school (31% now vs. 41% in 1969). But, even amongst those who live less than a mile away, only 35% usually walk or bike now vs. 89% in 1969. (Source)

What if you don’t live in walking distance from your school? Consider parking half a mile away (or a few blocks away) and walking in! Many schools (at least in the Seattle suburbs) have walking paths through nearby neighborhoods that keep you off busy streets. (And then you won’t have to deal with the crowds in the school parking lot / the long line up of cars.)

Traffic Danger

First, it’s worth noting that a big part of the traffic load is people driving their kids to school…. “Parents driving their students to school comprise 10 to 14 percent of morning rush hour traffic (McDonald, Brown, Marchetti, & Pedroso, 2011).” If more people were walking their kids to school, there would be less traffic – especially in school zones.

Second, driving is not necessarily safer than walking. Motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of death.

As more and more people drive, and fewer and fewer people walk, city budgets focus more on roads than on sidewalks and pedestrian safety. Be an advocate in your community for making your neighborhood pedestrian friendly!

We used to live in Bellevue, the city right next door to Kirkland. Hardly anyone walks in most parts of Bellevue. Lots of people walk in our part of Kirkland. That means that drivers in Kirkland remember to watch out for pedestrians vs. people in Bellevue don’t bother. The more people who walk, the safer it is to walk.

You can also increase safety while walking by choosing high visibility clothing for your child – like a red coat with reflective stripes instead of a black coat.

Weather. I’ll confess – Of the few times we’ve driven to or from school this year, half were for weather. I don’t mind walking in drizzle to mild rain. (I live in the Seattle area – that’s our normal everyday weather.) But this year, we’ve had some times (weird for Seattle) of POURING DOWN RAIN. One happened when we were walking back from school… by the time we got home, we had to hang the coats to dry, change our pants, shoes, and socks. I was glad that hasn’t happened on my son’s way TO school, where he wouldn’t have spare clothes to change in to. So, there are days when the weather seems too bad to walk.

But, most days, it’s just a matter of choosing appropriate clothing and footwear for the weather. My son attended outdoor preschool for two years, where he would be outside for 2.5 to 3 hours straight, so we’re used to dressing appropriately. And yes, it’s possible even if you live in a colder climate than Seattle. There’s plenty of outdoor preschools in Scandinavian countries with much colder winters. Getting good outdoor clothes can be pricey, but just think how much money you save on gas, wear and tear on your vehicle, and on a gym membership by walking!

Crime Danger: Clearly, there are neighborhoods where it is risky to walk through. (Unfortunately, those are often also the same neighborhoods where parents have no other option than having their child to walk to school.)

For the majority of American neighborhoods, the risk of crime is not that high, especially in the hours when you would walk a child to and from school. Although many people believe that the world is a “more dangerous place than it used to be”, statistics actually show that the rate of child abduction by strangers has stayed stable over the past 20+ years.

One way to increase safety is to travel in a group. Some neighborhoods organize a walking train, where there’s an adult “engine” leading the way, and an adult “caboose” at the end, making sure all the kids in the middle stay safe.

School Policies: Some schools place limits on children walking to school, or on children arriving at school unaccompanied. If this is true of your school, talk to the administration to learn more, learn what the options are, and advocate for any change you believe would be beneficial to the families at your school.

Physical condition: Although this wasn’t in the top 5 issues in the survey, I imagine this is a barrier for many. My husband’s foot was injured for the past few weeks by too many dance performances in a short period, so he had to take a few weeks off from our walk. But, if you have physical limitations, walking may actually be one of your best ways to get active. I have one leg and use crutches to walk, and walking on the sidewalk works great for me, but treadmills, ellipticals, and lots of other specialized exercise equipment is completely unusable for me. For my parents, who are 80-something, walking and going up and down stairs are the main exercises they are still able to do. If your physical condition prohibits long walks, can you fit in a few short walks outdoors each week with your child?

Schedule: Sometimes a parent’s work schedule means that walking is not feasible. For example, a few mornings each month, I need to be at work across town 20 minutes after I drop off my child at school. I have to drive on those days, because I don’t have time to walk back home and pick up my car, and then drive. If this is your situation, ask your manager whether there’s any possibility of making a slight adjustment to your work schedule, or consider talking to neighbors about a walk-pool / walking bus, where you take turns being the grown-up walking the kids to or from school.

What do YOU do? What could you do?

I’d like to hear from others… do you walk your child to school and other activities? If so, why – what are your favorite benefits? If not, why not – what are your barriers?

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