Walking to school teaches its lessons

If everything goes as planned today, 600,000 students across the country will experience what for some is a novel way of getting to school: walking. They will ignore the school bus and the family car, chauffeured by Mom or Dad, in favor of the oldest form of locomotion, foot power.

The Oct. 4 occasion is the third annual Walk Our Children to School Day, a fledgling effort to encourage students to burn a little shoe leather in the interest of activity and exercise. For many, there will be an added feature - walking with a parent.

From modest beginnings in Chicago and Los Angeles in 1997, the event has spread to 47 states. This year other countries are also participating, from Canada and Britain to New Zealand and South Africa. Organized by the Partnership for a Walkable America, the day is designed to teach pedestrian safety and counter sedentary habits that are contributing to a rise in childhood obesity and a decline in fitness. Even recess is becoming an endangered species in some schools.

For earlier generations, walking was often the only way to get to school. Stories of grandparents' long daily treks, sometimes exaggerated, form part of family lore. As one walk-related Web site notes, tongue-in-cheek, "We'd bet that every parent could tell stories about the conditions when they walked to school as a kid... Three miles each way... uphill both ways... holes in your shoes... puddles big enough to appear on the map... and in the winter... even worse!"

What passenger in a bus or car could possibly match tales like those?

Today, a variety of obstacles conspire against walking to school. Heading the list is a trend away from neighborhood schools. Then there's the lack of sidewalks in some neighborhoods, the concern for children's safety when they walk alone, and an increase in the ranks of busy parents who don't have time to walk with children.

Kim Evans, who helped organize today's walking event at an elementary school west of Boston, sums up the challenge many parents face. "It's very easy to pop everybody in the car, especially in winter, even though you live close to the school," she says.

Her children's school is using the walking event as a kickoff for a year-long initiative to encourage walking and fitness. For the past year students have also been able to take part in "Walking Wednesday." Those who arrive 15 minutes early walk together along a fitness trail behind the school.

Beyond its potential benefits for children, this walk-to-school day serves as a reminder of how artificial and deliberate exercise has become for many people. Adults push an elevator button to ride up one floor at work, then go to the gym to climb on a stair-stepper. They circle the parking lot at the mall, looking for a space close to the entrance, then go home and walk a few miles on the treadmill.

The yellow school bus, that cheerful American icon, will always play an important role in transporting students. No one can underestimate its convenience.

Still, adults who cherish fond memories of walking to school know the intangible rewards it brings - rewards that go far beyond physical exercise.

Think of the pleasures of seasonal changes. Remember scuffling through brilliant red and yellow leaves covering the sidewalk in autumn? Listening to the crunch of snow under your boots in winter? Catching sight of an early robin or the first daffodil in spring?

Enjoying nature is only one benefit, of course. Leisurely conversations with friends or the reflective thoughts of solo walkers contrast markedly with the collective din on a bus.

Efforts like these to promote walking offer hope that it's not too late to convert another generation to its pleasures. How else, after all, will students collect adventures to tell their grandchildren? Stories that begin, "Let me tell you about the day the school bus was late..." don't quite cut it.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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