Parents, Please Have Your Kids Walk to School

They need it more than ever now.

kids walking to school in winter

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If you want to do your kids a favor, consider having them walk to school. It is more important now than ever before. Thanks to the pandemic, countless children have been cooped up for nearly a year, their movement restricted by the lack of extra-curricular activities that normally would ensure they meet their daily recommended levels of physical activity.

Walking to school can help. For those children attending a physical school – and there are many, my own included – that morning and afternoon walk could be the only chance they get to spend time outside, stretch their limbs, and get their heart rates up. It's a golden opportunity to incorporate physical movement into their day without introducing risky group sports or going to an indoor gym where risk of contamination is higher.

And there are so many benefits to be had – improved academic performance, reduced anxiety, boosted spirits, better sleep, a sense of independence, a chance to visit with friends or to be alone with one's thoughts, an opportunity to familiarize oneself with a neighborhood, to notice small details, to feel a sense of wonder at the surroundings. The list goes on. 

Parental fears persist, however. Parents are terrified of cars, of injury, of harsh weather, of encounters with strangers and wild animals (like the angry mother moose I once met while biking to school years ago). These fears, many of which are statistically negligible, prevent parents from letting their kids do something that's actually enormously beneficial to them, despite the fact that removing an opportunity to be active contributes to an increase in childhood obesity, which can have a greater negative impact on a child's life than the risk of being injured due to being active.

How do we go from being a society that does not encourage its children to walk independently to being one that does? For an expert opinion, Treehugger reached out to Dr. Mariana Brussoni, an associate professor of pediatrics and developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia who researches children's outdoor and risky play.

When it comes to changing the culture around parents driving kids to school, Brussoni likened it to the layers of an onion: there are challenges at a number of different levels that need to be addressed simultaneously. There's the child-and-family level, where convenience pushes parents to chauffeur their kids; the community and school level, affected by norms around the acceptability of letting kids walk themselves and the presence or absence of safe routes; and the societal level shaped by municipal design that prioritizes cars over pedestrians and fails to consider children's needs when making planning decisions. Brussoni explained,

"The most effective interventions to change things would address all of these levels. That might seem daunting but very promising things have already been happening. The pandemic has illuminated some important opportunities, such as families prioritizing time spent outside and an increased willingness to be outdoors in different weather conditions, and cities have increased pedestrian access and closed off streets to cars."

Conditions are gradually becoming more favorable. The fact that many parents are now working from home and no longer have a convenient reason to drop kids off at school on their way to a job could encourage more families to embrace walking. The pandemic has led some families to relocate to neighborhoods that allow for a lifestyle they want, rather than prioritizing proximity to a workplace, so it's possible there will be some shifting patterns of children's commuting to school. 

Parents must confront their own discomfort with letting go. Brussoni said, "We want to move parents from focusing solely on protecting their child to building trust in their child’s capabilities and strategies to support their child’s skills in navigating the streetscape." Brussoni's research lab at UBC has created a tool that helps parents walk through their own fears and become more comfortable letting kids take risks in play – and, in this case, walking to school.

Schools can play a role by facilitating the creation of walking school buses to escort younger children to school. Brussoni offers additional suggestions:

"[They can] promote a culture that walking to school is the norm, help educate parents on why this is important, consider closing the streets around the school to cars before and after school, eliminate the policy that some schools have that students up to a certain age need to be signed in by an adult, make sure that bike racks are available where students bikes will be protected from theft."

Parents might do well to put themselves in their children's shoes. As adults, we know how good a morning walk feels to start off a day or to end one, especially if our work is sedentary, as much of school is for kids. Walking energizes us and cheers us up, and it can do the same for children. As we emerge from this pandemic that has shaken up all of our lives, it's a good time to implement new routines and establish new habits. Walking to school is a great place to start.

View Article Sources
  1. Cooper, Ashley R., et al. "Commuting to School." American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 25, no. 4, 2003, pp. 273-276, doi:10.1016/s0749-3797(03)00205-8