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How Urban Sprawl Is Hurting Your Child’s Health

walk to school

As a general rule, my mom refused to drive her children to school. There were exceptions: If we were running really late (not just late, but really late); if the weather was really bad (not just bad, but really bad); or if we had a ridiculous amount of stuff to carry for a project that was due. Ditto coming home: We hoofed it at least 90% of the time.

I can’t say that I loved the situation, especially because it felt like all of our neighbors and friends formed carpools and got rides. (And also because getting to and from school was, at times, literally an uphill battle both ways, in the snow – a curse of living in the mountains.) However, I do think it may have prepped me to live most of my adult life without a car at my disposal, which has been great for my health and the health and activity of my family.

I am remembering these details of my childhood because my older son starts school in a few weeks like most other children in the country and for us, like many other children in the country, walking to school isn’t even an option. For us the problem is distance: His school is more than 4 miles away, on the other side of the East River from our apartment in Brooklyn. Google Maps tells me it would take us an hour and a half to walk there, which might be a tall order for a 6-year-old. (It’s a much more manageable 40 minute commute by train, and 30ish minutes by bike.)

But other families who do live close enough to walk to their schools simply can’t do it, because the schools are located on roads that are outside of the range of sidewalks and almost hostile to pedestrians. Kaid Benfield of The Atlantic points out one school district in northern Virginia in which the schools are located on the outskirts of recent housing developments, on roads that don’t have sidewalks. So even for the families who live closest to those schools, walking might not be an option. It’s simply too dangerous to have kids walking along the shoulder of a road like that.

While this unfortunate situation can make transporting children to school a bit of an ordeal for families, it also adds another barrier: children getting the activity they need in their lives. As much as my 10-year-old self would hate to hear me say this, having to walk to (and from) school was probably really good for burning off energy that could have led to difficult behavior. It may also have led to the healthy habits and attitudes about being “active” that I have as an adult. And, in my opinion, if there is anything our obesity-plagued country needs right now, it is a simple way for kids to be active that is part of their everyday lives. The ability to walk to school would do the job nicely.

I realize that for many families, the only thing they can do about the situation is petition their cities for more pedestrian-friendly roads and more foresight in building schools within existing neighborhoods, instead of on the fringes of new developments. But for those who do live close enough to walk, take advantage of this increasingly rare opportunity. It may seem like a chore now, but it’s likely to pay dividends in the future as far as health and well-being go. Start a healthy habit now: walk your children to school.

 

image via istockphoto.com

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