Get those children walking

Cross posted

Oh, the old “All those fat children should walk to school and get off my road” debate again… The Dominion Post has a front page article this morning: Why don’t children walk to school?” Apparently most children are driven to school, including 50% of those who live within 2km of their school, and only 35% walk or bike. This is a BAD THING.

The reasons for children not walking to school are to my mind, obvious. Time, and safety. If you are in paid employment as well as parenting, then time counts. Even twenty minutes walking your children to school is a huge impost in the mornings when you are racing to get to work. I’ve written about it before:

If it’s not the children who are at fault, it must surely be their parents. They are the ones who won’t take 20 minutes out of their mornings, or afternoons, to ensure that the children get to school safely, on foot. Never mind that many families need to have two income earners, just to pay the cost of housing and food. Two incomes means two jobs, and frantic mornings trying to get everyone cleaned, dressed, fed, lunches made and school bags packed, all while trying to ensure that both adults can get to work in reasonable order, and hopefully, on time. Twenty minutes may not sound like much time, but it is a huge chunk out of a busy morning. Yet somehow, the “children should walk to school” brigade think that parents can just dream this time up out of nowhere.

And let’s not forget that some parents are told very clearly that they ought to be working. Sole parents are perhaps the busiest parents of all. And now here’s yet another thing that they ought somehow to be doing.

Then there’s safety. Getting across busy roads is a difficult task, even for adults. And it’s not just roads that are problematic: children are typically totally unaware of driveways, and cars reversing out. Yes, the driver of a reversing car is responsible for ensuring that she or he doesn’t run over any pedestrians, but that legal nicety is of little comfort when you are confronted with terribly injured children. There is a vicious circle here: driver awareness of pedestrians and cyclists would be better if there were more pedestrians and cyclists on the road, but the numbers are so low that at present it is simply dangerous to be out there, so the numbers of cyclists and pedestrians are decreasing, so awareness drops even lower and it gets more dangerous, so even less children walk and bike. The problem is well known.

Those points are obvious. But there are some other issues that might be raised. Children’s age makes an obvious difference. We live near one of the local highschools, and every morning, we see hordes of teenagers trudging along the nearby streets, and virtually no congestion outside the school gates. The article in the Dom Post notes that 70% of five year olds are driven to school, but only 42% of eleven and twelve year olds. My guess is that one critical factor in determining whether children are driven to school is the age of the youngest child in a family.

Second, parents are given competing directions about what to do with their children. On the one hand, we are told that we should make our children walk to school, but on the other, we are told that we are not allowed to leave our children unsupervised. So it’s okay to send your child out alone to walk to school, but it’s not okay to leave them at home alone.

Third, my guess is that many adults live within easy walking distance of their workplaces (the article seems to have two distances in mind: 2km for easy walking, and 5km for possible walking or riding), yet there is no pressure on them to leave their cars behind. Yet it would be just as easy for adults who don’t have responsibility for children to take the extra 20 minutes in their day to walk or bike to work. But as usual, it’s just so much easier to ladle blame and shame onto parents and children.

My children walked to school in Adelaide, where we lived about 600m from the school, and the children could use a controlled crossing to get across a very busy arterial route.
We drive our children to school here in Greenhills, where we live about 3km from the school.


11 comments on “Get those children walking

  1. Mr Bee says:

    In 1970 NZ’s population was 2.8 million, and we owned .310 cars per person. In 2005 the population was 4.13 million, and we owned 5.74 cares per person. Multiply them together, and it turns out that there are almost three times as many cars in New Zealand as when I were a lad!

  2. Che Tibby says:

    i can commend ‘walking buses’. am looking to set one up once CDF is school age.

    the main problem will be getting other parents to share responsibility. too many people are entirely focused on their atomic family, and community falls to the wayside.

  3. Carol says:

    Mr Bee, I am thinking you probably mean 0.574 cars/person. Your point, of course, stands.

    I was also a bit mystified by the hectoring tone of the article in the DomPost, and the opening admonishment that “less than 40 percent of Wellington children living within 5 km of their schools walk or bike each day ..”. Well, hello! Wellington is not a very bike-friendly city, even for adults, what with the narrow roads, the lack of bike lanes, the hills and the weather. And 5 km is a very solid walk for small children – it would take the best part of an hour. Even 2 km is a solid walk, especially if hills are involved, which in Wellington they generally are.

    Lots of kids around here (Brooklyn), including mine, ride their scooters to school, which seems to work very well as it’s fun and a bit faster than walking. But I think kids are only really ready for this once they are intermediate age or so, in terms of road safety awareness and general confidence at being out and about on their own.

    As for walking school buses – great idea, also quite demanding of parental time and energy. They tend to go in cycles at our school – they start off with a hiss and a roar when an enthusiastic newbie gets them going, and over time, there tends to be attrition as the reality of finite time and energy kicks in. There were three walking school buses at the start of the year and we are down to one now. I have also noticed that we are exhorted to get them started up by young and idealistic council planners and the like – who are lovely but generally are not themselves grappling with getting children to school and full time employment. Heh.

    So yeah, I completely agree with you, Deborah.

  4. I live in a rural area, and I’m probably about a kilometre from the local primary school. The Strumpette is not school age, but when she does get to that age, I won’t be able to let her walk by herself for a long time as whilst our area is semi-rural, we have no footpaths, no curbs and the majority of roads are dirt. The demarcation between road and driveway, or road and nature strip is not always clear. Until she can clearly understand the difference I won’t be able to let her walk unsupervised.

    On an additional note – when she was about 14 months old and walking confidentaly but still learning about walking out and about, it was actually very difficult to go for a walk – the only place we can walk is on the road, and she would stop and want to be carried and I had to pick her up because it’s a road – with a footpath I could have negotiated. It actually took a long time for her to walk independantly out and about due to this issue, and made me reluctant to get out and walk with her and so on and so forth!

  5. violet says:

    We only live about ten minutes walk from our daughter’s school but still end up dropping her off in the car several times a week just to save time.

  6. Gae says:

    When I started school (back in 1949 for goodness sake!) we were the only household in our street that had a private car (as opposed to tradesman’s vehicles), and I walked about three kilometres to and from school, having rehearsed the route several times. This is from day one, in stinking February heat and humidity, and I was a frail asthmatic. Through Haberfield shopping centre, crossing the road and the tram lines. And my parents were regarded as over protective !! Times change.

    Gae, in Callala Bay

  7. Amanda says:

    I really agree with this. As both her parents have full time jobs my daughter goes to after school care everyday. The days are quite long and tiring enough as it is, for her and us, and time and energy are precious commodities. Also let’s not forget how atrocious the weather often is in Wellington too. I don’t believe most adults would choose to start their work day struggling up and down steep and hills in the rain and wind if there was an alternative and I’ll be damned if I’ll force my 7yo to do it.

  8. […] A Bee Of A Certain Age on mother-blaming and the ‘walk to school’ message. The reasons for children not walking to school are to my mind, obvious. Time, and safety. If you are in paid employment as well as parenting, then time counts. Even twenty minutes walking your children to school is a huge impost in the mornings when you are racing to get to work. […]

  9. I was sent here by Blue Milk’s recommendation, and I agree wholeheartedly. My kids’ public school here in the USA just had a “Walk or Bike to School Week,” which by itself is a fine idea, but the berating of the kids to participate was so intense that my daughter was actually stressed out when we couldn’t participate for four of the five days. And we are relatively privileged and able to juggle our schedules–I can’t imagine how other families felt. As you say, it’s easier to blame parents than to untangle all the systems that conspire against them.

  10. Helen says:

    I was just thinking of this today, in relation to biking. I biked to school in Adelaide’s northern suburbs in the 1960s, about 3 km perhaps, and never felt scared even though we did terrible things like seeing how far we could ride with no hands, and helmets were unknown. Now my son has ridden off to Williamstown whre there’s a bike path for half of the way and I always feel stressed about the other half. The motor traffic has increased as Mr Bee points out, and the rude, careless and unthinking attitude of many drivers makes me worry for his safety. Daughter, who’s now 19 and never felt much interest in driving, has proposed fixing up her neglected old bike and taking to riding again. I should be encouraging her, particularly as I was a bit of a bike nerd in the 70s, but I can’t muster any enthusiasm, because of the abovementioned. It’s a real problem.

  11. I get it, really I do but tell me, how do children learn independence if they are driven everywhere? How do they learn to make critical decisions? How to assess risk? They are constantly ‘supervised’ – on the way to school, during school, on the way home and at ‘structured after-school activities’. Where is there freedom to explore? Where is the time for ‘unstructured play’? To learn important life skills? UK research has shown that pedestrian accidents jumps up at age 11. The researchers strongly suspect it is because children haven’t had the opportunity to learn vital road safety skills at Primary School and are then expected to suddenly walk when they are ‘old enough’ but aren’t equipped with the skills they need. We’re not doing them any favours by driving them everywhere.

    Not only is walking to school important for developing road safety awareness, decision making and risk taking skills, NZ research has shown children who walk to school are better prepared for the school day, they experience increased communication with their family and are better connected with the community.

    The question is are we doing more damage by not allowing our kids to walk, than by ‘keeping them safe’ in the car? I get we are all busy and don’t have enough time in the day but if we ‘let go’ a bit on the reins maybe we would find more time? Check out this thought provoking article on free range parenting…

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