Uphill Both Ways In The Snow

By Kristen Castillo

June 28, 2016 5 min read

Fourteen-year-old Elliott has walked or biked to school throughout elementary and middle school.

"My rather hyperactive son started running to school in second grade while I rode the bike alongside him with my daughter in a trailer," says Elliott's mother, Jennifer Harrison. "His teacher thanked me profusely each day he ran saying how much better relaxed and focused he was each day."

Elliott, who goes to school in Folsom, California, is now a 400-meter league champ in track. He uses the walks to school to talk with friends.

"When he gets home, we have lots of nice conversations about this little trip," his mother says. "This is a nice perk in the middle-school years."

*Strolling Stats

In 1969, nearly half of students ages 5 to 14 walked to school. Over time, the percentage dropped significantly. But new data show that more kids are hitting the pavement to get to school.

According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, students walking to and from school between 2007 and 2013 increased from 11.9 percent to 15.2 percent in the morning and from 15.2 percent to 18.4 percent in the afternoon. The report is based on over 605,000 parent survey responses from 5,277 schools across the country.

National Walk to School Day is held every October. The one-day campaign has been celebrated for the past 20 years. But that's just a start, say parents and experts.

*Healthy Habit

Walking is a healthy habit that can help kids get the recommend 60 minutes a day of activity.

"I find the ever-rising levels of child obesity in the U.S. alarming," says mother of 12 children, Varda Meyers Epstein, who is a writer and parenting expert at Kars4Kids.

She recommends parents organize a "walking school bus" where many kids to walk to school together, monitored by one or more parents.

"This would ensure that a child walks twice a day, most days of the week," she says. "That's a bare minimum of fresh air, sunshine for vitamin D and a way to use up all those supersized fast food portions."

*Ready to Learn

Exercise -- including walking -- gets the body moving and can stimulate the brain too.

"There is tremendous research that specifically shows how when children are physically active, it enhances their math and science abilities," says Dr. Joyce Mikal-Flynn, an associate professor at California State University, Sacramento who teaches a course in neuroscience, explaining some studies suggest kids should study math and science right after "hardy physical activity" because that's when the brain is ready to learn.

Another bonus? "The physical activity clearly assists with the brain chemicals responsible in mood stabilization and happiness."

*Safety

Though there are few objections to walking to school, safety is a concern for many parents. They worry about accidents, strangers and crime.

"We overestimate danger and underestimate our kids," says Creators Syndicate columnist Lenore Skenazy, author and founder of the blog and book "Free-Range Kids" and a contributor for Reason.com.

Skenazy remembers walking to school as a kid in the Chicago suburbs and says nationally crime is lower now than it was a generation ago. She cautions moms and dads from being helicopter parents, hovering over their kids.

"There are zero cons of walking to school," she says. "It gets the blood flowing and the brain going."

Andy Weisser has been walking his daughter to school since she was in kindergarten. The girl is now in middle school.

"I get invaluable time with my daughter to talk about many topics, instead of rushing to school in a car and getting stuck in that traffic," he says, describing how two to six kids walk to school in their group every day.

"The week before school started last year, parents and students walked the route to school together after talking about pedestrian safety, crosswalks, making eye contact with drivers before stepping off the sidewalk and what to do in a possible emergency."

*Teaching Independence

Walking to school can kids gain independence and learn coping skills.

"I very consciously encourage my first-grader to walk to school by himself," says Dr. Bobbi Wegner, a mother of three and a clinical psychologist who specializes in parenting.

"We live about a block away from school, I help cross the street, and he goes off on his independent journey down the road," she says.

Wegner's son was anxious at first, but he grew more comfortable.

"Over time, I watched him learn to navigate where to go, how to handle the normal day chitchat with both kids and parents alike, enjoy the morning walk, and saw him evolve into a more confident, secure little guy," she says.

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