Walking to School

It's good for kids. Toronto's Chief Planner explains why

Nadia Halim, February 18, 2014

Last week, Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner for the City of Toronto, gave a talk on the subject of walking to school. The talk was the keynote address at the first Annual General Meeting of Walk Toronto, a group that advocates to improve walking conditions in the city.

There are obvious health benefits to walking to school, and research shows it helps kids academically as well; those who walk to school show improved concentration and do better in class. As recently as the early 1970s, most children in North America got to school by walking or riding bikes. But today, 70% of Canadian children are driven to school. These kids are missing out on more than fresh air and exercise, says Keesmaat: Walking is a “rite of passage.” There are challenges to be overcome, adventures to be had, neighbourhoods to be explored. Children who walk home learn to figure things out for themselves and be autonomous, and autonomous children grow up to be autonomous adults.

How can we encourage parents to allow their kids to walk to school? Keesmaat laid out some ideas. To allay fears about children’s safety, some schools organize a “walking schoolbus” -- in which groups of children walk to school together, picking up new kids on the way, in the company of an adult. The way a school is designed can encourage or discourage walking; for example, says Keesmaat, putting a layby (an area for vehicles to pull off the road and stop) in front of a school’s entrance says, “Don’t walk here.” Schools can build a community culture that encourages walking -- for example, by hanging a bulletin board in the foyer where kids can pin requests for “walk buddies.”

Keesmaat has given a TEDx talk on this subject, and you can see it here:

Image: Runnymede Public School, Toronto. Photo by Nadia Halim

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