Children reap many benefits from walking to school
If you grew up in the 1960s, as I did, chances are you walked or biked to school.
Back then, childhood obesity was rare. Most kids had a regular dose of exercise every day, just walking or biking with friends to school, or rambling down country lanes to the big yellow school bus.
Today the picture is very different. Streets around our schools are congested with the cars of parents dropping off and picking up their kids.
Fewer than 15 percent of children now walk or bike to school on a regular basis. Many kids never go anywhere unless someone drives them.
During the same time, childhood obesity rates have tripled. Is there a connection?
That’s a question that parents, educators and public health experts are starting to ask. By providing kids with private curbside transportation everywhere they go, are we depriving them of an easy opportunity to get physically fit, burn some fat and develop personal responsibility?
Earlier this month many parents, teachers and others joined kids from schools throughout our region in the annual Walk to School Day, a celebration of the joys of putting one foot in front of the other to get to and from school. For many adults who participated, the health benefits that kids get from walking were of greatest importance.
But the payback from walking to and from school doesn’t stop there. Kids who are physically fit from a daily walk to school have been shown to do better academically than their peers in mom’s taxi.
Children who walk to school also develop a stronger relationship with the natural world. Young people who spend unstructured time exploring the natural environment are better able to use parks, gardens and other green spaces to cope with stress throughout life. By contrast, kids who ride everywhere in cars are said to suffer from “nature deprivation syndrome.”
Having more kids walk and bike to school also reduces traffic congestion around schools, and cuts down on air pollution and pedestrian injuries in surrounding neighborhoods. More than one-quarter of morning traffic is now school-related. Wouldn’t it be great to get those cars off the road?
Of course, we can’t ask kids to walk to school where it is unsafe to do so. Fears of child abduction and other crimes against children are not unfounded, but the risk – especially in our local communities – may be overestimated by many parents.
A more realistic barrier to walking is a lack of physical infrastructure, such as sidewalks, bike paths and protected crosswalks. Too often our schools have been located beside heavily traveled roads without adequate sidewalks linking them to neighborhoods where children live.
El Dorado County is fortunate to have professional transportation planners who are examining deficiencies in the pedestrian network around schools. They are committed to making it possible for every child who wants to walk to school to do so, as funding for new sidewalks and other improvements is found. They deserve our support.
In the meantime the non-profit 50 Corridor TMA has teamed up with the elementary schools of El Dorado County to launch a program called Smart Routes to School. The program’s Web site is kid-friendly and very informative. Check it out at http://www.smartroutestoschool.com.
– Jason Eberhart-Phillips, M.D., is the El Dorado County health officer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.