Ditch the excuses about walking to school

Has your family used any of the lines below to justify not walking to school? If so, challenge yourself to come up with a work-able, walk-able solution.

“There isn’t enough time in the morning.”

The start of the day is chaotic in every household, and some honest reflection might reveal areas for improvement. Could you be more organized? Could you wake up earlier, or pack lunches the night before? While everyone’s getting ready, how can you minimize or eliminate distractions such as screen time? You’ll likely all be happier if you have a structured plan instead of a daily mad dash out the door.

“It’s boring.”

Students in Waterloo, Ontario are having a livelier walk-to-school experience thanks to a joint initiative called the School Wayfinding Project. In the past two years, fun activities such as footprints, hopscotch, letters and numbers were painted on the sidewalks leading to 15 local schools. Signs were also added in the surrounding areas, indicating the remaining travel time to the school by bike or on foot. These signs can also serve as a convenient drop-off or meet-up point, to promote walking part of the way and reduce vehicle traffic in school zones.

“The goal is to encourage as many students as possible to walk to school, for the social, health and environmental benefits,” says Christine Koehler, Traffic Operations Program Manager for the City of Waterloo, one of the key partners in the program. “Students and parents alike have been enjoying the various sidewalk markings, and the signs are a visible reminder to use active transportation whenever possible.”

“It’s too far.”

Is it really? Map it online or do a “test walk” with your child and a GPS watch. If the distance is reasonable and the kids are complaining needlessly, consider showing them this short preview for a documentary entitled On the Way to School. The film follows groups of children in four different countries – Kenya, India, Morocco, and Argentina – and the harsh terrain they willingly cover to reach their schools. It makes our Canadian sidewalks look like red carpets.

“It’s too dangerous with all the traffic.”

We, the parents, are a major part of the traffic problem. We all agree that student safety is the top priority, yet there are still frazzled parents making unsafe driving decisions such as pulling in to fire lanes, rolling through intersections, parking illegally, or speeding in a school zone, all in a last-ditch effort to get there before the bell rings. If we genuinely care about protecting our kids, then we need to act more responsibly.

The thing is, if more kids walked, it would naturally lead to less vehicle traffic, congestion, and impatient driving in front of the school. On days when I drive my kids, we park on a quiet side street nearby and walk over together. It takes two extra minutes and gives us a calmer, safer start to the day.

Every neighbourhood has traffic hot spots, so seek out alternate routes if you can. Talk to the school crossing guard to get a sense of what the challenges are. Review and practice the proper way to cross the street with your child. On our walk home the other day, my kids and I witnessed a car driving recklessly. We used it as a teachable moment to talk about why it’s important to cross the street in a safe way, because sometimes cars won’t see you. “Yeah, especially if they’re driving crazily like that,” said my nine-year-old.

“I’m worried that my child will be kidnapped.”

Again, safety and common sense must always prevail. No one is advocating for children to walk alone or to put themselves in harm’s way. You know your child best, and if you don’t feel he is ready to take responsibility for his own safety, your efforts should start there. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection has a family-friendly website, BillyBuddy.ca, with resources, activities and games to help start the dialogue about personal safety and “the buddy system.” We need to train our kids to be aware and confident about their surroundings, during school travel as well as unstructured play in the community.

Walking to school is a trend worth promoting, because as more kids and parents choose to walk, the safer it becomes. In the 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, the RCMP provided the statistic that the odds of a child being abducted by a total stranger are approximately one in 14 million. Just to be sure, many elementary schools have implemented a “safe arrival” policy where parents will be contacted if a child is absent without the school being notified in advance.

“I can’t accompany my kids, and they’re too young to walk alone.”

Most walk-to-school resource websites seem to agree that students in the primary grades (kindergarten to grade 3) should have adult supervision when walking. By the age of 9 or 10 (grade 4 and beyond), students generally seem to be ready to walk with groups of peers or older siblings.

It’s worth checking if your school or neighbourhood has a formal or informal program where children and parent volunteers walk as a group. Do an online search for “Walking School Bus” and the name of your province or city to see what efforts are already under way. A Canadian Cancer Society initiative called Trottibus has successfully established a network of walking school buses, all listed online for easy access.

“It’s the school’s job to promote it.”

Progress is far more likely when school staff and parents work as a team. Approach the right people at your local school to see if you can start a campaign to promote long-term change. A group of parent volunteers in Vancouver partnered with their school to create “Freedom Fridays”, with the goal of inspiring active transportation to school every Friday. Resources to start a similar campaign are available from Active and Safe Routes to School, which is part of Green Communities Canada.

With a little effort, creativity, and initiative, your family can walk away from the excuses and start “kicking it old school.”