Kids Who Walk to School Have Better Concentration

CC BY 2.0. Ed Yourdon -- Children congregate in front of an elementary school.

Some of the rhetoric surrounding breakfast nutrition should be transferred to morning exercise, encouraging parents to swap their car keys for a pair of walking shoes instead.

Breakfast is a popular topic when it comes to assessing children’s academic performance at school. Without a good nutritious breakfast, it is difficult for kids to focus on learning. As a result, breakfast “clubs” have popped up in many public schools to ensure that all kids get access to food before the morning bell rings. But what if there were something even more important than breakfast?

A 2012 Danish study found that exercise – even a small amount – has greater rewards for academic performance than even food does. Lead researcher Neil Egelund from Aarhus University told the Globe and Mail:

“We could see that there was some influence from eating your breakfast. But the influence from physical exercise was even greater. It means a little something if you have a little bit of exercise – or perhaps a lot of exercise – before you have to sit down and concentrate.”

I’m not saying we should forget breakfast altogether and get kids to jump on a treadmill before heading off to school, but we should be making more kids walk to school – after finishing their breakfast, of course.

Sadly, the numbers of walking children are lower than ever. A new study of southern Ontario has found that the number of kids aged 11 to 13 being driven to school in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas has increased from 12 percent in 1986 to 31 percent in 2011. Even in downtown Toronto, that number has gone from 10 percent to 25 percent over the same years.

There’s no doubt it’s convenient to drive, especially if parents are on their way to work anyways and they’re in a rush. But this reliance on cars has an unfortunate downside for kids.

  • Driving to school reduces opportunities for social interaction with peers (walking together, hanging out in front of the school).
  • Parents who are focused on driving miss out on opportunities for heart-to-heart chats with their kids. (This is real: “You learn things about what’s happening in your child’s life,” says another study author Prof. Ron Buliung of the University of Toronto.)
  • It fails to teach children and adolescents alternative ways of getting around a city.
  • It impedes their ability to orient themselves, since traveling the same route in a car does not imprint itself on the brain in the same way as walking it on foot.
  • The eventual result is young adults who are not inclined to make sustainable transportation choices because they’ve never been taught why it is important.
The Globe and Mail reports, “Walking to school not only has physical benefits, it has also been associated with improved academic performance and socialization.” An additional study by Metrolinx found, not surprisingly, that “patterns are established in childhood, and children who are active make more sustainable transportation decisions later in life.”

A major shift needs occur, according to Prof. Buliung, who walks his young daughter to school every day. He says, “At the end of the day, there are things that are good for children and right to do. One of the outcomes [of walking to school] may be an improved ability to concentrate.”

Hopefully the day will come when parents are as reluctant to drive their child to school as they are to neglect feeding them breakfast. Then we’ll see if the academic performance scores start climbing!