Research is mounting; the evidence is weighing in on the side of the health benefits of having kids walk or bike to school. This is termed active school transportation or AST. The benefit to our children of getting to school in an active way is clear: increased aerobic activity leading to healthier, leaner bodies. There are additional benefits to our environment of fewer cars and to our neighborhoods of greater social cohesion.
Even given that actively moving to school would make our kids healthier, more and more kids are driven by parents every day. In 1970, 42% of kids actively got to school. Today? Closer to 13%. Changing these numbers can change our kid’s health.
When asked why their kids are not actively getting to school parents express concern about street safety, weather and distance. As a mom of three kids, I understand these concerns. I have driven miles (in small ant-like circles around town) carting my kids to school, music and sports practices.
However, my kids for the most part, ride their bikes to school. Their elementary school is a 6.5 mile round trip which my youngest first asked to do on his bike in fourth grade. To calm my maternal concern, I spent a good deal of time traveling with him to teach the ways of the roads and bike lanes and equipped him with a cell phone much earlier than his sibs were given one.
Even now, a few years later, I worry about his journey. Is he safe? Is it too long? Is he too cold or too hot? For the most part though, I know that encouraging him to ride helps him: his body is stronger and he is more mature.
Deciding to chauffeur less can seem challenging. But here are some ideas to get you started:
- Consider starting a neighborhood “walking school bus.” Neighbors and friends can take turns walking groups of children from “bus stops” to school Take a look at this fun video for inspiration.
- If you plan to have your child start biking spend some time teaching them the ways of the road. Then bike with them until you are convinced they are ready to roll solo. Here is a good resource for safe biking support.
- Some parents fear that their children may be intentionally harmed by others as the child walks to and from school. To help protect your child, read my post on safety around strangers.
Above all rules, the one I have been strictest about is the helmet rule. When on anything with wheels they have to wear a well-fitting helmet. And it has to be strapped! To enforce this rule I used the “it takes a village” concept and have told all of my friends to notify me if they see one of my kids without a helmet. The kids know that they will be fined $25 dollars for the first time and that fine will be doubled with each “offense.” Years of safe bike riding had gone by when last spring I got a text from a friend saying she just saw my child without a helmet. I quickly fired off a text:
You owe me $25.
I immediately got the answer:
Wait Mom! My helmet is broken!
He biked in 5 minutes later looking worried and holding his helmet – in nearly two pieces. He had fallen and it had saved his brain.
I revoked my fine!
Active school transportation is an important step towards a healthier community of children. It is worth trying for your child! In a commentary written for the journal Pediatrics, Drs. Liu and Mendoza sum this all up well:
“We recognize the many societal changes that have led to more students being driven to school. As parents, we empathize with families who worry about dangerous streets, distracted drivers, and challenging weather conditions that give pause to even letter carriers. When viewed through the eyes of child health, AST is an ‘old school’ form of physical activity that more children should adopt to make the daily trek to and from school.”
Dr. Kate Land is a Kaiser Permanente pediatrician and mother of three active children. For more great advice from Dr. Land, visit her blog: KP Thriving Families. You can also follow her on Twitter at @KPKiddoc.