Strollers are a hot topic these days, and for many different reasons. Some people want to ban strollers, or at least limit them, on public transit because they’re an inconvenience and take up a lot of space. Other parents scorn strollers because they’re not conducive to bonding with a child. (Some of you may remember that unforgettable scene from the 2009 film Away We Go, when Maggie Gyllenhaal banishes a stroller from her house, shrieking, “I love my babies! Why would I want to push them away from me?”) Strollers are catching everyone’s attention because they’re bigger and fancier than ever before. Double-wide, triple-seater stroller beasts block the supermarket aisle and fill the line at Starbucks, and it seems that the children inside them are bigger, too.
Wayne Curtis believes that our dependence on strollers is a serious problem for yet another reason. In “Going for a Stroll,” he writes about how strollers are making kids passive, uninquisitive, and fat. Strollers may be necessary until the age of two, but after that kids should walk whenever possible. Curtis explains how walking stimulates important brain processes that cannot be replaced by riding. Kids learn about gravity:
Walking is a perpetual falling with a perpetual self-recovery. It is the most complex, violent, and perilous operation, which we divest of its extreme danger only by continual practice from a very early period of life. (Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1863)Kids learn how to navigate and maneuver with agility, develop muscular strength, and burn calories. Walking also forces kids to make independent decisions constantly, which in turn teaches them that they have unique desires; according to researchers, this is a crucial step for socio-emotional development.
One fascinating 2004 study that Curtis cites followed solo groups of adults and children walking between home and school. The adults always took the most direct and efficient route, while the children opted for circuitous, exploratory routes with arbitrary turns that took them parallel to, or even away from, their final destination. Researchers concluded that this kind of “environmental manipulation” is essential for kids to feel anchored in their world. I know exactly what those researchers are talking about because I spent countless childhood hours wandering roads and paths. Knowing my natural surroundings so intimately made me feel secure and safe because I always knew where I was, and my bipedal perception of distance to home was likely more accurate than if I’d been pushed past the same landmarks at stroller-speed.
Curtis presents a convincing argument, but the problem is that so many of us parents race through life at breakneck speed. It can be challenging to fit a toddler’s tortoise-like pace into a day’s schedule, but it must be done. How else will a child get better and more efficient at walking if he or she cannot practice? As mother to two active little boys, however, I do believe there is a time and place for strollers; otherwise, it would be almost impossible to leave the house and do anything productive. The key is moderation in all things, from the size of the stroller being used in public places to the amount of time a child spends strapped into it. Parents must also learn to schedule time more generously, allowing room for slow, leisurely walks that let young children absorb the world at their own pace.