Wednesday, October 4, is Walk to School Day. Let me tell you why I think this seemingly simple event about walking is important, not only for children, families, and communities, but hikers, backpackers, and cyclists too.
I walked, and later biked, my way to and from school from nursery school through sixth grade (that’s three different schools). I never thought much of that freedom then, but two decades (plus) later, I know it gave me a certain amount of independence: the independence to navigate myself, and my overloaded backpack, from one spot to another, alone or with a friend or two for company. If it rained I took an umbrella. When it snowed I wore my boots. I don’t recall my parents ever giving me a car ride anywhere that was within walking distance, and most places were.
I know some of you are thinking, it’s a different time now. No kidding.
Walking anywhere has become a much rarer feat today. As communities and their schools sprawl out, opportunities for kids (and adults) to safely walk or bike around their town are being lost. In 1969, 42 percent of students walked or bicycled to school; in 2001, only 16 percent of students walked or bicycled to or from school. Even I couldn’t walk to school now if I returned to my Connecticut hometown; the new elementary school is located across town and next to a busy intersection.
No one wants children to travel through dangerous areas of course, but shouldn’t we all have a right to safely walk or bike where we need or want to go? And in terms of keeping kids safe, opportunities for more physical activity are sadly needed. More than 61 percent of 9- to 13 year-olds don’t engage in organized physical activity during non-school hours; and 22.6 percent don’t participate in any free-time physical activity. But get kids walking and they’re likely to be more physically active throughout the day.
Oh, and then there’s the fuel consumption and air pollution from driving and bussing kids around. And what about how little time kids spend outside anymore (for more on that issue read Richard Louv’s thought-provoking Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder).
Safety, physical activity, concern for the environment. Wow, walking to school doesn’t sound so simple anymore.
So visit www.walktoschool-usa.org to find a Walk to School Day event near you and learn about how to make communities more walk- and bike-able. Have kids? Find a way for them to walk or bike, even partway, to school on October 4 or another day. Don’t have kids? Go for a walk or ride around your town and see how foot and pedal friendly it is for everyone.
Walking to school on a sidewalk may feel a bit different than hiking on, or off, a trail, but it all starts with putting one foot in front of the other. And if we can help kids do that now, maybe we’ll see them out on the trails later.