Hi Readers — I’m still on the road and just gave a speech in Chicago sponsored by the National Center for Safe Routes to School. (A jolly bunch!) Safe Routes reps every state gathered to talk about the pressing question: How can we get more kids walking to school? The organization says that a generation ago, two thirds of f kids walked or biked to school. Today, 20-25% do. I’ve heard numbers even lower than that.
So Safe Routes (funded by the Dept. of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration) aims to get kids back to walking to school by whatever means necessary. If a neighborhood needs sidewalks, they help the neighborhood organize to get ’em. If a school has outlawed walking or biking, they help explain to the district why those things are actually GOOD. They even address, head on, the district’s fears of liability. Meantime, if parents are interested in letting their kids walk, but are scared (of predators, traffic, and worst of all: other parents thinking they’re lazy!), they teach ’em about the “walking school bus.” That’s the cool idea that a parent can take her kid and walk to the next kid’s house and pick her up, and then they all walk to the NEXT kid’s house and pick HIM up, etc., etc., so by the time they get to the school, there are a bunch of kids all walking together. Eventually, the kids don’t need the parents anymore: They’ve learned the route, know how to safely cross the street, and this has become their daily routine.
Even the Safe Routes folks agree: It’s weird we have come to time in society when we have to structure what used to be simple and natural — kids walking places. But the way I often think of Free-Range Kids is just that: re-introducing an old-fashioned childhood. When kids have been kept inside so long they no longer know how to organize their own game of leap frog, it’s not bad for a school to hire a recess coach to teach them (and then get out of the way). It’s more important to bring back those skills than it is to blindly pretend that kids will develop them on their own — because they never did. The used to learn games from the older kids in the neighborhood. If there are no older kids outside anymore, or they’re all at travel soccer, then of course the younger ones don’t learn those games out of thin air. Someone needs to re-introduce them.
That’s the same reasoning behind “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day.” Of COURSE I’d like all kids to automatically head out to the park on a sunny Saturday without needing a special holiday to encourage this. But since so many times kids DON’T head to the park, they DON’T get to know the other local kids, and they DON’T know how fun it can be to just kick around a playground with each other. So they stay inside. I proposed a morning where the old-fashioned “meet and have fun” thing would happen, hoping that afterward kids would clamor to do it again.
Safe Routes is on the same sort of mission and its website seems to be loaded with great ideas for how to get the PTA involved, and what to say to skeptics, and how to get the school on your side. And if the local problem is a lack of crossing guards, or whatever, the organization is also game to help walk a district through the red tape it takes to get some grant money to fix the problem. And, just like Take Our Children to the Park Day, Safe Routes sponsors Walk to School Day (coming up in October).
Our shared goal? To re-introduce kids into the world, sort of the way we’ve done with Peregrine falcons. They may have been bred in captivity, but a future awaits when they can soar. — Lenore