What's riding on your child's school journey?

Remember back when you went to school and you had to walk three miles, uphill, both ways, with snow up to your armpits? Well it turns out you’re one of the lucky ones. As Richard Louv effectively argues in Last Child in the Woods, children require direct exposure to nature for their physical and emotional health – and they need it on a regular basis. When we were walking to and from school we were given a daily opportunity for outdoor jaunts that could unfold into joyful explorations of our natural surroundings. Most of today’s children rarely have that opportunity.

Between hockey practices, safety concerns, rainy days and time management priorities, parents increasingly find reasons to drive their children to school. Recent findings from Canada Walks showed that across Canada, 41% of children are regularly being driven to school in personal vehicles.1

41% of children are driven in family vehicles for the school journey

Parents say convenience is the #1 reason they don’t allow their children to walk or cycle to school

We’ve all seen it – vehicles converging chaotically in school drop-off zones within the same ten- or fifteen-minute time frame at the beginning and again at the end of every school day. Cars fill the air with caustic levels of carbon dioxide at most schools across Canada, wreaking havoc on the environment and on our children’s health. Traffic experts estimate that the school commute accounts for around 25% of urban surface traffic daily, and the pollutant effects stretch across residential streets to our homes as well.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Children breathe 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than adults. Because children’s respiratory systems are still developing, they are more susceptible to environmental threats than healthy adults.”2

It takes about 10 minutes to walk a kilometer with a kindergartner

With dedicated personnel, School Travel Planning projects decreased driving by up to 28%

Our children deserve better, and in the case of the school journey, that means reducing the number of cars at schools by getting children out of the car. Since the days when we walked uphill both ways, the rates of children walking to school have plummeted from around 60% These are pictures taken by a walker (left) and by a child who is driven to school (right), demonstrating the different worlds experienced by active and passive travelers. to less than 30%.3 At the same time, rates of childhood obesity, heart disease and other chronic diseases have skyrocketed. The Canadian strategy to curb childhood obesity recognizes a lack of physical activity and increased sedentary time as contributors; and walking or cycling to and from school each day can help children fight these culprits.

The walk to school can help your child’s academic performance, too. Active Healthy Kids Canada tells us, “Even small amounts of physical activity (e.g., walking on a treadmill at a moderate intensity for 20 minutes) leads to higher scores on standardized academic achievement tests.”4

In Thompson, Manitoba, Bruce Krentz has stopped driving his children to Westwood School, opting instead to walk and cycle: “It’s been one of the greatest things that we’ve done over the last couple of years. I would encourage people to do it. Walk with your kids if you can if there is some way that you can swing that. It’s really some special time together and... it shows your kids that it’s okay to walk; that you don’t always have to take a car to wherever you go.”

But the walk to school is not always possible; even when the school is nearby. Sidewalks aren’t always in place, crossings may be too long, and without a walking culture, the walk may seem intimidating and lonely. That’s why Canada Walks works to overcome barriers to walkability. Their School Travel Planning programs bring community residents together with school administrators, municipal planners, public health officials and other decision makers to create active and safe routes to school so that more children can get that daily physical activity while being exposed to nature.

Of parents who drive their children, 20% would consider letting their children cycle if there were adequate storage facilities

Hundreds of millions of government dollars go to school bussing every year; $0 is spent on active school travel

Parents are finding power in the process. Sue Rickert sits on the School Travel Planning committee at St. Matthews Catholic School in Waterloo, Ontario. She says, “Working with the STP committee at St. Matts has been completely empowering. We’ve had great successes because there is a direct tie-in with regional leaders who can help us make real changes for the safety of our children and for the whole community - like the pedestrian island on Bridge Street. I’ve realized through this committee that those leaders want, and need, to hear from parents about what’s working and what’s not working.”

Many people don’t realize that the school journey is about more than getting to school. It’s an opportunity to build lifelong habits of physical activity and to foster a deeper connection to nature. Back in the 1990’s, Michelin told us there was “so much riding on your tires,” but in truth, there is so much more riding on the walk to school.

1. See http://www.saferoutestoschool. ca/downloads/Executive%20Summary- CLASP%20Results-May%202012.pdf
2. See http://www.air.dnr.state.ga.us/information/pm25.html
3. See http://www.saferoutestoschool.ca/downloads/Executive%20Summary-CLASP%20Results-May%202012.pdf
4. Active Healthy Kids Canada (2011). Don’t Let This Be The Most Physical Activity Our Kids Get After School. The Active Healthy Kids Canada 2011 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Toronto: Active Healthy Kids Canada

The Active Healthy Kids Canada 2012 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth.

The Journey to School.
(See especially Sustainable Happiness and the Trip to School, pp 15)

Children’s Mobility, Health and Happiness: A School Travel Planning Model 2012 National Results – Executive Summary.

How to Get Active on the Trip to School Through School Travel Planning.

Kids Say Walking to School is Healthy, Fun, and Good for the Environment.


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