The Benefits of Walking to School

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Children’s health advocates are urging parents and schools to consider making it possible for children to walk to school.

This is because there are many physical, mental and academic benefits of walking to school instead of driving, taking the school bus or using public transportation. From the reduced risk of physical and mental illness to a boost in academic performance, the experts make it clear. Kids should walk to and from school as often as possible.

Why is Walking to School So Important?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says at least 60 minutes a day of physical activity is vital for a child’s health. But kids are not getting enough opportunity for physical exercise at school. Just 3.6% of elementary schools, 3.4% of middle schools, and 4% of high schools require daily physical education or its equivalent for the entire school year.

While some children may make up this lack of exercise outside of school, they are in the minority.  In fact, the CDC found that more than 75% of children, aged six through 17 do not get the minimum recommendation of 60 minutes of physical activity each day.

George Mammen with the University of Toronto is an advocate of walking to school as a way to make it easier for children to have a daily opportunity for healthy physical activity. He has studied what he calls “active transportation,” and he promotes walking to school as a simple way to reverse the trend of childhood inactivity. You can read more about his thoughts on active transportation here.

The Benefits of Walking to School Are More than Physical

Reducing the risk for serious physical consequences should be enough to promote a regular walk to school. But there are positive mental, behavioral and academic outcomes as well.

Mameen states, “Children who walk to school have been found to have higher academic performance in terms of attention/alertness, verbal, numeric, and reasoning abilities; higher degree of pleasantness and lower levels of stress during the school day…” You can read more from Mammen here.

The CDC agrees, stating that regular physical exercise can “reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. More facts from the CDC:

  • “Students who are physically active tend to have better grades, school attendance, cognitive performance (e.g., memory), and classroom behaviors (e.g., on-task behavior).”
  • “Higher physical activity and physical fitness levels are associated with improved cognitive performance (e.g., concentration, memory) among students.”

Overcoming the Barriers to Walking to School

Distance

How far is too far for children to walk to school?

There is no official guideline for a “walkable” distance to school. Factors that can be considered include the layout of the route and what other options a child has to get to school.

When looking strictly at measurable distance, a basic guideline may be had by looking at several European studies, such as this Belgium study, this UK study, or this Ireland study. In the United States, there is the Safe Routes to School listserve that offers the following advice:

  • Kindergarteners: .5 miles
  • Elementary students: 1 mile
  • High School students: 1.5 miles.

When distance is a barrier to walking to school, combining alternative transport with walking, or driving part of the way may be a solution.

Safety Concerns

How safe is it for children to walk to school?

Looking at transportation facts with school-aged children, walking to school is safer than driving. Still, parents may have some safety concerns about allowing their children to walk to school.

To keep children safe while still giving them the opportunity to walk to school, parents and communities can develop support systems, such as “walking busses.” A walking bus is a group of children who are chaperoned by two adults. Children can meet in one place, or join the walking bus as it makes its way along the route.

You can learn more about starting a Walking School Bus here.

Cold Weather

How cold is too cold for children to walk to school?

The majority of school days take place during the fall and winter seasons, when temperatures range from cool to cold. Just as with the issue of distance, there are no national or professional standards or guidelines of how cold is too cold for children to walk to school. School districts may make the decision to close a school due to cold, but they act on a case-by-case basis. Often it is left up to parents or caregivers to decide, and lack of adequate warm clothing can be a serious barrier to the ability to walk to school. It can also be a barrier to attending school at all.

The National Institutes of Health published a study that shows, “Rates of walking to school were also higher amongst recipients of the Free and Reduced Price Meals Program…” Children who qualify for the Free and Reduced Price Meals program are children who are living in need and most likely to lack warm clothing.

To make it possible for these children to be able to walk to school on cold days, communities can raise money for brand new coats and gift them to schools with vulnerable children.

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