Back to walking

As the pandemic has forced us to embrace at-home education, many look forward to the simple joys of walking to school again

By Chris Benjamin

When school returns one of my family’s favourite things will be resuming our daily walks. I can already hear the lilting “Welcome Baack” from the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song, which my wife blasts every year during the first walk to school. We’ll round up the troops—five fresh-faced Grade 3 students, a Grade 1 sister, parents, and two or three dogs—at Connelly and Edinburgh streets, and we’ll encounter other walking groups as we head to the Bayers Road crosswalk, kinetic energy crackling through the excited chatter.

Some will whiz to the next intersection via scooter, others will roll via bicycle, and some will saunter casually. My wife and I will dance like the goofballs we are.

It’s quite a crowd on the first day back, and something we miss dearly since social distancing kept us all home. During a normal fall, winter and spring, our street’s six kids, occasionally joined by a couple of tag-along friends, will be accompanied by one to three adults each morning: our Walking School Bus (WSB).

“For my son Thomas, it’s about starting the day with friends,” says parent Jennifer Cameron, a self-employed public relations consultant. “He looks forward to the walk, even though he’s shy.”

Membertou Elementary Walking School Bus. Photo: Vaughn Merchant

For Cameron, the WSB, which started when her son entered Grade Primary, is a reassurance of safety, physical activity, and friendship for Thomas. His peers would be with him, familiar faces in a new environment, guided by a parent to help them navigate road traffic, and cars backing out of their driveways, blind to small children.

“There’s no battle, no complaining or whining,” Cameron says. “He’s proud to be on the walking school bus.”

Patrick Laroche, an IT professional, originally saw the WSB as a time saver. “Same advantage parents of kids with regular school buses have,” he says. Four days a week, he could see his son, Reid out the door and know he was cared for and safe.

That’s still a significant benefit, but he has found many others. “Kids hanging out together, being kids. I enjoy it too, walking the kids, seeing them play, seeing them when they arrive at the school and knowing their environment.”

His daughter Faye has since officially joined the WSB, but even when she was in daycare she would tag along with her own little backpack. “Her big brother taught her the ropes and it helped her with having social success when she transitioned to school,” he recalls.

Neither Cameron nor Laroche specifically mentions helping the environment when they talk of the WSB, although Cameron says she would definitely be driving a lot more without it. We all would.

That’s not why we started it, but a WSB is a great way to reduce carbon emissions, particularly in school zones, where growing lungs (and brains) breathe more rapidly than adults, absorbing more pollutants.
My wife, Miia, initiated our WSB. We held a meeting at our house to gauge interest, set ground rules and, most importantly, named ourselves. The Edindon WSB was born.

We set starting times and a meeting place. When people are late, we give them a courtesy knock to make sure they’re still planning to come that day. “Drivers” give as much notice (usually by text) as possible on days they can’t lead the bus, so another parent can step in. Some parents go nearly every day because they enjoy the exercise and social time with other parents.

There were early discussions about the route, whether to use the crossing guard on Connelly or the traffic lights on Oxford—we went with a route with two crossing guards. With three work-from-home parents on our team, there is flexibility and built-in contingency, and parents frequently trade “driver” days to accommodate one another.

We are part of a larger movement, one that spans Halifax, the province and Canada. There are informal WSBs like ours, and ones backed by schools or by regional centres for education (RCE), or by environmental groups like the Ecology Action Centre (EAC). They are part of an effort to pushback against inactivity and car dependency. In Nova Scotia, one in three children is obese, and under 20 per cent walk to school, compared with 60 per cent of their parents’generation.

Why is that? Are those of us within a half-kilometre radius of our kids’ schools really too busy? Possible.

But according to Stephanie Johnstone-Laurette, EAC’s youth active transportation coordinator, the biggest reason parents give for not walking their kids is safety—our fear of traffic creates more traffic. “Most parents aren’t comfortable with a young child walking to school,” Johnstone-Laurette says.

Exacerbating the problem has been the growth of catchment areas as schools have amalgamated, creating longer walking distances. “This is where it’s important to have a school champion,” Johnstone-Laurette says. “You need walkable communities, to find a safe route.”

She says most schools now have a transportation advisory council that can help create WSBs, plan the safest possible routes, ideally with crossing guards. “Safety is the key issue,” she says, “and there is safety in numbers.” Walking (or riding or scooting) in groups, with at least one adult along, increases visibility and enhances decision making.

With time and experience, we’ve seen our kids learn the route, and how well trained they are to stop at each road and wait for the rest of the group, including adults. “They benefit from repetition of routes and reminders about how to cross street.”

Leon de Vreede with safety equipment he had made to support the Bridgewater Elementary School Walking School Bus. Photo: Ecology Action Centre

When surveying young WSB participants, EAC has found that their memories from walking are entirely different from a child being driven. “Those in cars remember another vehicle or the school. Walkers remember the worm they saw. Or the person they waved to.” Connections to community and connections to the natural world.

The WSB is likely a growing phenomenon as RCEs and the province are making physical activity a priority, calling for 10 to 25 minutes daily. “It’s really being pushed on a community level. Walking school buses bring the pieces [community, safety, activity, and environment] together.”

Our group hopes the WSB is the start of a lifelong habit, normalizing active transportation. That’s important, because according to Johnstone-Laurette, older children are even less physically active, with only five per cent of boys and one per cent of girls achieving provincial activity goals in high school.

“Hopefully they want to stay together as a bus when they’re older, because they’re friends and they trust each other,” Cameron says.
“Maybe it will become just them walking,” Laroche adds.
“We already see that with older kids in our neighbourhood.”

For more information on starting a Walking School Bus in your neighbourhood, visit ecologyaction.ca/walking-school-bus.

Read more from our Summer 2020 edition of Our Children.

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