When You Drive Your Kids Everywhere, They Never Learn Where They Are

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boy looking out car window
Only about 13% of younger students in American schools walk or bike to school. (Photo: Travel_Master/Shutterstock)

When my son first started to drive a few years ago, he practically needed GPS to get out of our cul-de-sac. The reason? He was used to being driven around, and he spent most of his time with his head buried in his phone, paying no attention to what was going on outside the car window.

Once he got his driver's license, he had no idea how to get to school, the park, the grocery store or pretty much anywhere he had gone on a regular basis most of his life. But his experience, it turns out, isn't that unusual. Many of us live in suburban neighborhoods where kids don't walk or ride their bikes to get anywhere. So we jump in the car each time our children need to go to a friend's house or band rehearsal. And they just stare out the window or at their phones, giving them something observers have dubbed the "windshield perspective."

"This limit on independent mobility decreases children’s opportunity to be physically fit and healthy," writes Bruce Appleyard, assistant professor of city planning and urban design at San Diego State University, in the NCBW Forum. "But it may also have an impact on aspects of their mental health by way of diminished ability to independently experience and learn about the world around them."

Appleyard is fascinated with the idea of how always being in cars affects a child's perception of his environment and his ability to navigate it.

Mapping the neighborhood

To study the impact of car-centric lives, Appleyard worked with two groups of children in residential neighborhoods in California. The communities were similar in that both had elementary schools, but one had heavy traffic, so the kids were driven everywhere. The other had light traffic and infrastructure that slowed down traffic, so parents were comfortable letting kids walk or ride their bikes.

Appleyard and his team asked 9- and 10-year-olds in both communities to draw maps of their neighborhoods between home and school, as if they were describing it to someone. They were asking to point out their friends' houses, places they liked to play, and places they liked, disliked or thought were dangerous.

"One conclusion was immediately obvious: being part of traffic profoundly affects children’s perceptions," Appleyard writes. "Many children primarily experience the world outside their homes from the backseat of a car."

map drawn by child who was driven everywhere
A map drawn by a 10-year-old child who was driven everywhere shows a series of disconnected paths with little or no connection to the community. NCBW Forum

One child who was driven everywhere drew a map (above) that had home, school, friends' houses and the mall, all with a series of disconnected paths that led nowhere. Another child drew a straight line with home at one end and school at the other.

Children who walked or biked, however, were able to create much more detailed, accurate maps of their communities.

Children who saw their world from the backseat of the car also often conveyed feelings of dislike and danger about their community, while walkers and bikers had a greater sense of safety.

Changing the environment

two kids riding bikes in a neighborhood
When communities are bike- and walk-friendly, kids feel happier and can draw more accurate maps of their neighborhoods. iofoto/Shutterstock

Appleyard followed up with the kids in the heavy-traffic area after changes were made, making it possible for them to navigate their community on foot and by bike. This time, they were able to draw more detailed maps and were more positive and less fearful.

"After the improvements alleviated the exposure to these threats, there were indeed fewer expressions of danger and dislike, indicating a greater sense of comfort and well-being," he writes.

But changing the environment isn't always an option.

Appleyard cites a poll to CityLab that found 71 percent of parents surveyed had walked or biked to school when they were kids, but only 18 percent of their children do so now.

“We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in fatalities,” Appleyard tells CityLab. “But we’ve also seen abandonment of the streets. Parents see too much traffic. What is the rational thing for a parent to do? Your choice is to drive them. It’s a multiplier effect – parents are driving because there’s more traffic, and then there’s more traffic.”

The windshield perspective can change

The good news is that kids who grow up seeing the world from this perspective will eventually learn to navigate it. My son had pretty much no sense of where he was through his driving days in high school, relying on Google Maps to get him to his most regular destinations.

But fast-forward to last fall when he went to college in downtown Atlanta without a car and everything changed. Now he walks nearly everywhere or takes public transportation, often relying on landmarks and memory to get him where he needs to go.

I'm sure he cheats occasionally and uses Google Maps, but when he jumps in a car, he actually seems to know what's going on in the world around him.