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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Getting to School “Old-Style”: 4 Ideas to Get Started Walking or Biking

The benefits of being active are well-known. Increased physical activity is associated with healthier, leaner bodies and improved brain function, academic performance, and mental health. Still, most of us drive our kids to school! In 1969 about half of kids walked or biked to school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unfortunately, today, fewer than 15% of kids walk or bike to school. Changing these numbers can change our kid’s health. 

When asked why they drive their kids to school, parents express concern about street safety, weather, and distance. I understand these concerns and realize that walking or biking to school may not be an option for some families. For others, I’d encourage you to read on!

As a mom of 3 kids, I’ve driven miles (in small ant-like circles around town) carting my kids to school, music, and sports practices.  However, for the most part, my kids rode their bikes to school. Their elementary school is a 6.5-mile round trip, which my youngest first asked to do on his bike when he was in 4th grade. To calm my maternal nerves, I spent a good deal of time traveling with him to teach the ways of the road, including riding in bike lanes. I also equipped him with a cell phone much earlier than his siblings got 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’s learned a good deal of responsibility.

Deciding to chauffeur less can be good for you and your kids. Here are 4 ideas to get started:

  • Create a neighborhood “walking school bus.” Neighbors and friends can take turns walking groups of children from “bus stops” to school.
  •  Spend some time teaching your kids the ways of the road. Then bike with them until you’re convinced they’re ready to roll solo.
  • Have safety talks. 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 this post on safety around strangers.
  • Insist you kids wear a well-fitted helmet. Above all, the rule I am strictest about is the helmet rule for anything with wheels. And it has to be strapped snugly under their chin! To enforce this rule, I use the “it takes a village” concept. I tell all of my friends to notify me if they see one of my kids without a helmet. The kids know that they’ll be fined $25 dollars the first time they’re caught without a helmet – and the 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!

My son arrived a bit later, on his bike, looking worried, and holding his helmet – cracked down the middle! He’d fallen and his helmet had saved his brain!

I revoked my fine.

Active school transportation is an important step towards a healthier community of children. It’s worth trying for your child when possible! In a commentary written for the Journal of Pediatrics, Dr.’s 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, active school transportation is an ‘old school’ form of physical activity that more children should adopt to make the daily trek to and from school.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Resources for parents:
My Doctor Online

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:
Kids and Bicycle Safety
Walk and Bike to School

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