As the school year approaches, choosing which supplies to buy or what to wear on the first day of school can seem like stressful decisions for your kids. While these choices can have a short-term effect on a student’s confidence, social life and ability to organize school work, other decisions have a far greater impact. Specifically, deciding how to get to school can have a lasting effect on a child’s health and mental well-being.
Rides in family vehicles and school buses account for the vast majority of trips to school. Considering the perception that driving is the only realistic option for getting around South Florida effectively, this is not surprising. With driving everywhere now ingrained in our culture, having your children walk or bike to school may seem odd.
It is important to understand the cost of our attachment to our cars. Kids often spend their day moving from one seat to another. While this happens, inactivity continually contributes to growing obesity rates across the nation. By choosing to drive to school when other options exist, an opportunity is missed.
Walking to school won’t solve the problem of inactivity, but learning a walking habit at a young age can have a lifelong health impact. Establishing an expectation that while some destinations require driving, others are best for walking, can encourage the habit of activity in a way that doesn’t make exercising feel like a chore.
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The benefits of walking to school aren’t limited to physical health. Kids who walk to school perform better academically. By walking, kids get a chance to wake up, move around and mentally prepare for the day, rather than arriving groggy and unfocused. Using a little energy before the academic day begins can make the difference between attentive listening and feeling a lack of focus due to a desire to get up and move around.
Not every family lives close enough to school for walking to be an option. However, too often, families who live within a two-mile radius of the school choose to drive. A perception that walking to school might be unsafe prevents some families from taking advantage of the benefits of walking. The good news is that there are ways to address these concerns.
First, it is important to be sure that kids know the rules of the road. Talk to your child to introduce safe walking concepts. Ensuring that kids know how to walk safely, be it by using crosswalks, waiting for crossing signals or looking both ways before crossing the street, is important to ensuring a safe arrival at school. If you aren’t sure how to begin these conversations, visit WalkSafe.us for tip sheets regarding pedestrian safety.
Be sure to follow up these conversations by walking around the neighborhood with your child and practicing these skills together, modeling the behaviors you want your child to emulate. Not only is it informative for your child, it can be a fun bonding experience.
Another way to encourage safety is to partner with other families interested in walking to school. Perhaps you like the idea of your child walking to school but don’t have time to walk with them each day. By taking turns with other families, kids can be monitored on their walk to school without requiring a daily commitment. Even establishing a buddy system for kids who previously walked alone can help.
If you don’t know anyone who walks to school, try walking with your kids to school and talk with anyone doing the same. Also, ask the school administration if they know of any organized groups already walking to school. Another great way to find others who may be interested in walking to school is to participate in International Walk to School Day on Oct. 7, 2015. For more information about Walk to School Day, visit WalkBiketoSchool.org.
Overall, one of the healthiest things a child can do is get in the habit of exercising regularly. Walking to school is an easy way to encourage this behavior. By talking with your kids about pedestrian safety and partnering with other families who walk to school, it can also be a safe way to encourage this habit. Taking into consideration all the benefits of a morning walk, perhaps we should weigh the opportunity to walk to school just as heavily as we do other choices at the beginning of the school year. For more information about UHealth’s WalkSafe program, call (305) 243-8115.
Matthew Cushing is the Research Support Specialist at WalkSafe/BikeSafe, and Gillian Hotz is the director of the KiDZ Neuroscience Center at UHealth. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.