Across the western world, childhood obesity is on the rise, yet fewer children are walking to school.
Jane Hackett co-ordinates Ireland's Ireland’s National Walk to School Week programme, which began in 2009. She said over 32,000 children have participated in the event and that she is hopeful of even greater numbers getting involved.
The focus of the week is the Walk on Wednesday (“WOW”) but she says they are “really encouraging kids to walk for the whole week to get in to the habit of it.”
Ms Hackett, who is National Manager for Green-Schools Travel, says the aim of the week is to both to help tackle the obesity epidemic and to highlight the environmental, health, social and financial benefits of active travel to school.
She said: “Walk to School Week is a chance for Irish families to explore a lifestyle beyond the private car as the default mode of travel on the school journey. We are all aware of the benefits of building more activity into our daily life. By coming to school in a sustainable way … pupils to get a head start on being more active during the day.”
The initiative is part of the Green Schools Programme, in which over 3,400 schools are registered - about 85% of all Irish schools. As well as the Walk on Wednesday, other events like Feet First Friday, sponsored walks and fancy dress walks have been held across Ireland, while some even declared their school a “car-free zone.” Other schools organise “walking buses,” where an adult leads a groups of children along the route. The organisers hope to promote “independent walking and cycling” so that children who are mature enough can learn how to get to school under their own steam.
Northern Ireland also held its Walk to School Week last week. At its launch at St Joseph's Primary School in Belfast, Aileen Gault of Travelwise NI noted that. "A fifth of cars on the road during peak hours are due to children being dropped off at school.”
The phenomenon of children being unnecessarily driven to school is now seen all across the Western world: In the US, First Lady Michelle Obama, a strong campaigner to get children more active, said of America’s walk to school campaign that “by walking or biking to school, students, parents, teachers, and administrators all across America are getting active. It also helps kids get a head start on being active for 60 minutes each day [the recommended amount of activity]” and that “by getting students moving, we can help ensure they will live full and healthy lives.”
In Australia - which also held nationwide “walk to school” events last week -researchers have found that parents often think that their children want to be driven to school but, when asked, the kids say they’d actually prefer to walk. They conclude that there is an intergenerational misunderstanding about the issue.
Professor Boyd Swinburn of Deakin University said: “Most of the diseases in adulthood are related to lifestyle including lack of physical activity. So if we’re bringing up the next generation of children to be sedentary, then they become sedentary adults and that flows on to developing these chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.”
Research also shows that parents who walk with their kids value the “quality time” this provides. Teachers report that children who walk to school are more alert, relaxed and better prepared to start the school day. Children who walk also earn important life skills and can gain independence at an earlier age, while being out and about helps them to feel part of their community.
So, by and large, kids want to walk to school, doing so has benefits for their physical and mental health, the environment, community life, traffic congestion and saves Irish parents an average of €454 in motoring costs per year.
Given these facts, why do so few walk?
According to last year's Children’s Sport Participation and Physical Activity study, 31 per cent of Irish primary school students and 40 per cent of post-primary students now walk or cycle to school.
In the UK the charity ‘Living Streets’ has surveyed over two thousand children between the ages of seven and 14 in order to find out.
The study found that the barriers to children walking to school include the facts that:
• Over a third (36%) are scared to walk to school because of speeding traffic.
• One in five are concerned by the lack of safe crossing points on roads.
• Some fear walking to school alone, with almost one in five secondary school pupils areworried about being bullied on the walk to school and 39% are scared by the risk of “stranger danger.”
• One in ﬁve primary school pupils don’t walk to school because their parents don’t have time to walk with them.
• 52% of primary school children are not permitted to walk to school without an adult.
A key underlying factor, according to a 2010 UK-wide survey by Living Streets and Parentline, is that parents disproportionately fear their children being abducted or killed in a road accident. In fact, researchers say, children face a far greater threat from childhood obesity.
The risks from walking to school are real, but relatively small. For example the researchers say “children face a risk of about one in a million of being killed by a stranger” but a one in three risk of “adverse health and quality of life impacts” from lack of exercise.
They conclude that “the issues that parents worry about such as road deaths, abduction and murder remain extremely low risks … By choosing to remove their children from perceived risk as far as possible, by driving their children to school, parents unwittingly expose their children to real and increasingly urgent risks to their health and well-being.”
Their recommendations include extending 30kmh / 20 mph speed limit zones around schools and providing safe walking and cycling routes to schools.
While every school route is different, as is every child, the research presents a compelling case that on average the greater risk to children’s welfare lies in not letting them walk to school.
By focusing relentlessly on a small number of high profile child abduction and murder cases, the media must bear significant responsibility for distorting parents’ perceptions of what are the greater risks to children, thereby creating a somewhat paranoid culture which is inimical to children’s wellbeing, development and health.