Why Is It So Hard to Get Kids Walking to School?

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

Non-Sanctimonious Blog About Today: WALK TO SCHOOL DAY!

Hi Readers — I’m all for walking to school but I never expected such a beautiful blog post about it. Thank you, Massachusetts mom o’ two, Karen Allendoerfer!

WHERE WALKING GETS YOU by Karen Allendoerfer

I am the PTO Walk-to-School Coordinator for my kids’ elementary school.  I already have 2 kids, a full-time job, and a serious violin hobby, so I wasn’t exactly looking for another thing to put on my plate. But  I started walking my daughter to school after the neighborhood carpool stopped working for me.  I was done with frantically strapping kids 3 abreast into carseats, done with waiting in the line of cars in front of the school at drop-off, and done with worrying about being late. 

It was only really then that I remembered that as a child in the 1970’s, I had walked to elementary school in a suburb of Buffalo, NY.  It was about a three quarters of a mile away, around one big corner and across one big street.  I walked with my best friend, who lived next door.  This being Buffalo, we walked in all kinds of weather.  The crossing guards used to joke with us.  “It’s cold out here!  Where are your hats, ladies?”  “We hate hats!” we’d giggle as we crossed the street.

Here in the Boston suburbs in the new millennium, it’s really not that different.  It’s still a little under a mile to school, my kids still have neighbors to walk with, and there’s still snow in the winter.  But everything else seemed to have changed.  According to the International Walk to School website, 42% of students walked or bicycled to school
in 1969, compared with 16% in 2001.  I also found out that grassroots programs have started to spring up around the world.  A few schools in Hertfordshire, Great Britain, are now being credited with starting Walk-to-School Day in 1994.  Closer to home, I found that the town just to the north of where I live, Arlington MA, was selected in 2001
to be one of two cities in the country to participate in a Safe Routes to School pilot .  After the first year of the program, there was a significant increase in the number of children walking to and from the three pilot schools: 213 new walking trips a day!

I thought that if Arlington could do it, so could we. 

We started small.  The first year we celebrated International Walk-to-School day in the fall on the first Wednesday in October.  The second year we added a spring day, to get people back into it after the long winter. We had the idea that we would celebrate the beginning of spring, at the vernal equinox.  We were snowed out, and since then have joined
Massachusetts’ more prudent walk-to-school day in May.  The kids earn prizes if they walk, bike, carpool, or ride the bus 20 times.  And, on the walk-to-school days, we have celebrity walkers meeting the kids at different street corners and walking them to school.  Well, local celebrities. The town selectmen and our state representative have joined us, along with an increasing number of enthusiastic teachers.

One of the selectmen asked me, “Why do we need an event like this?” and while I was a little taken aback, I think he has a point.  The event is fun, crowded, with a lot of people there.  But really, the best walk-to-school times are still the ones when you get to know your neighborhood because you walk it:  whose dog — or guinea pig — is outside in the morning, where that stream in the back of your house actually comes out, who is repairing their driveway, and which trees lose their leaves first in the fall.

Today is International Walk to School Day.  Walk safely.

–Karen Allendoerfer is a resident of Belmont MA, and the mother a 1st grader and a 5th grader who attend Belmont public schools.

Ancient Child-Locomotive Practice to Be Revived for a Day

Just a reminder: All across the country (and world!) tomorrow, parents will be encouraging their kids to try a strange ancient practice called, “walking to school.” Perhaps it is time to reach back in into the hazy mists of time and try it in your neighborhood, too!

Plan a “Walk to School Day” For Next Weds.

Hi Readers! This coming Weds., Oct. 6 is Walk to School Day.

I know, I know — it’s sad we have to actually PLAN what should be an everyday occurence. What next, Brush Your Teeth Day? Put The Toilet Seat Down Day? (Though come to think of it…) But anyway, here’s the official link to the Day, sponsored by Safe Routes to School, and here are their tips on gearing up:

Plan a Walk to School event in 7 days

Walk to School Day events draw attention to the benefits of walking and any changes needed to make it safer for students to walk to school. Larger events include breakfasts, balloons, school mascots, and press conferences.

Many events are simpler. In fact, it’s possible to plan a Walk to School event in one week. Here are some tips:

  1. Get the principal’s approval.
  2. Post flyers at school (available at www.walktoschool.org/resources/flyers.cfm). If your school has an e-newsletter or listserv, send an announcement that way. The event doesn’t have to be formal — just inviting families to walk or bicycle to school together is what the Day is all about.
  3. On Tuesday, October 6, make an intercom announcement to remind students to walk to school on Wednesday.
  4. Register the event at www.walktoschool.org/register so that students and the school will be counted among the thousands of participants across the USA and worldwide.
  5. Create posters that will greet students when they arrive at school on October 7. Potential phrases include “Thanks for walking,” “It’s Walk to School Day” or “It’s cool to walk to school!”
  6. Have fun! And remember your success for next year, when you can plan a bigger event or repeat the simple path.

Walk on! — Lenore