"When I was your age, I walked 10 miles to school in the snow, sleet, and rain - uphill both ways!"
Children usually squirm when they hear this saying from their parents or grandparents. However, in many respects, this old saying rings more true today than in past years. That's because there are fewer children walking to school or engaging in active transportation (AT) today than ever before.
The recent Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card found that although 58 per cent of parents walked to school when they were young, only 28 per cent of their children walk to school today. Since being active is a natural and normal part of childhood, this shift toward fewer children walking should sound alarm bells for all of us.
Walking, cycling, or wheeling to school - to get around the neighbourhood or just for something to do - is all part of AT. Since school is out for the summer, it is a great time to consider AT options, such as walking to a friend's house, cycling to the park, or walking to the store to do an errand. By making an effort to rely more on our own two feet than our cars, we may develop good habits in time for the start of school this fall.
AT provides many social, mental, and physical health benefits for children. For example, walking or wheeling to school will help children to reach the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day and may help to maintain a healthy body weight needed for optimal childhood development.
A recent study found that children who walk to school enjoy the social aspects of their "journey," whether stopping to talk to a crossing guard, neighbour, or friend. This helps them gain important socialization skills. Actively transporting to school also develops environmental awareness and children may develop a closer, more detailed view of the world around them.
Children who walk to school pay more attention to trees, animals, people, houses, and plants on their journey to school. Children who walk to school also report mental health benefits. Contrary to popular belief, children feel stress too. They struggle to manage issues such as bullying, school work, poor sleep habits, and family life. Walking provides children with a necessary relief and distraction from the stresses and strains of childhood.
Barriers such as pollution, traffic and congestion, dirt and garbage on the streets, stray animals, and lack of green and natural spaces may discourage walking or wheeling. Children affected by poverty who live in low income neighbourhoods are particularly at risk of having to navigate such unpleasant environments. Weather related challenges, mosquitoes and humidity, or long and cold Winnipeg winters may also discourage young people from walking or wheeling.
Some barriers to AT are invisible. A recent study found that parents' attitudes toward AT predicts whether their children will walk to school. By encouraging children to walk or wheel to the local pool or park, parents can start encouraging the habit of daily AT during the summer months. As a culture, we also need to question how and why our reliance on cars has become an unconscious behaviour.
Although there are many barriers toward AT, parents, city planners, and members of government can work together to create environments that will help children to be active. With some creativity and planning, even weather related barriers may be addressed. Here are a few ideas to help encourage AT at home:
Make AT a family affair. Encourage your child to walk, cycle, or wheel by walking with them. If the destination (school, friend's house) is too far away, try driving part of the way and then walking the rest.
Make a list of places you typically drive to - short distances of one, two, or three kilometres from your home. Is there a park, community club, library or grocery store that you could actively travel to? Could you choose to walk or ride instead of drive? If we could change all trips less than one km from driving to active transport, children may acquire an extra 15 to 20 minutes of walking every day.
Support efforts to create environments that encourage AT, such as:
- Good lighting on the way to school
- Safer road crossings
- Improved access to green and natural spaces
- Sidewalks clear of garbage
- More protection for children around high traffic areas
- Construction of paths that make walking easy.
It's time for change. Our children need to move more and sit less. The social, mental and physical health benefits from walking to school and around the neighbourhood are too great to ignore. It will take a cultural change to help our children get walking. Let's start now!
Dr. Fiona J. Moola is an assistant professor in the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management and a scientist at the Manitoba Institute for Child Health. Dr. Jay Johnson is an associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management. Sarah Prowse is a physical activity promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.