RachaelRachael Rachael, a mom of two daughters, is a freelance editor and writer who enjoys gardening and dreams of keeping chickens in her suburban St. Louis backyard. In her spare time, she helps to edit her husband’s science fiction books. Read more of Rachael's work at www.rachaelsjohnston.com or contact her by emailing rachael@mumblingmommy.com.

Halfway through my daughter’s first year at the local elementary school, I am convinced that kids today really do have it easier. It seems like fewer students walk or ride their bikes to school these days, even when they live only a few blocks away.

When I was in elementary school, I walked 10 to 15 minutes to school every day unless it was raining torrentially. Then the neighbor kids’ mom gave us a ride. I even walked to school during the winter months when it was cold and snowy. As a safety precaution, my mom always made sure I had at least one other kid to walk with, and during my early elementary years someone’s parent always walked with us. When I was an older elementary student, I frequently rode my bike to school. My school had several bike racks that were always full.

When my oldest daughter started kindergarten last fall, I knew she also would be a walker. We live a block and a half from the school, for goodness sake. I’ll walk her there pretty much every day unless there’s lightning.

My convictions were reaffirmed during the first week of school: one look at the snarled traffic fanning out in every direction from the parking lot convinced me I’d rather walk than fight that mess. I can spend 10 minutes maximum – sometimes less – walking round trip in the cold or 30 minutes navigating the carpool lane (and sitting in a car that will take a good 10 minutes to warm up).

Afternoon pickup time is the worst for drivers because parents jockey to get a good spot in line. Last week my husband drove past the school 35 minutes prior to dismissal and noted three cars were already idling in the pickup lane. Maybe those parents don’t mind burning gasoline while playing on their phones and waiting for the bell to ring, but I prefer to hoof it.

We’re prepared for the weather. My daughter has a rain coat, boots, and umbrella for wet weather. When it rains, I carry my younger toddler daughter in a sling that’s rated to hold up to 36 pounds, so she and I can share one large
umbrella. My older daughter has a heavy coat, scarf, hat, and mittens for cold weather. She wears snow boots when necessary, and I pack tennis shoes in her backpack for her to put on when she reaches her classroom. I have cold
weather gear for myself and my younger daughter who usually rides in the stroller, and for added warmth I tuck a fleece blanket around my younger daughter’s legs while she rides in the stroller. If snow on the sidewalks is too deep to push the stroller through, I put on my boots and carry my toddler in the sling.

When the temperature dropped below 50 degrees last fall, the number of walking students in our neighborhood dropped correspondingly. On one recent day the temperature was in the twenties. The only other souls on the street were the safety patrol students standing guard at the corners. A line of cars sitting in a cloud of exhaust fumes waited to turn into the parking lot. The line stretched down the street, wound around the corner, and trailed down an adjoining street. My daughters and I tucked our scarves in snugly at our necks and trooped on.

Getting ready to walk to school.

On that particular day, my younger daughter and I headed to my weekly Bible study group after walking big sister to school. Someone commented on the cold weather, and I mentioned that I walk my daughter to school. The middle-aged and elderly women in my group all stated that they walked or biked every day to school when they were kids, in cold weather and sometimes in rain. There may have even been a few who had the legendary uphill-both-ways commute.

“I walked, too,” I said. So did my husband, who had a 10-minute walk to his bus stop each day. Also, during my college years, everyone walked everywhere on campus in rain, snow, ice, and sunshine.

Have we become wimps? It has to be pretty cold for frostbite to be a legitimate concern, especially during a short 10-minute walk, but I see families who live one or two blocks from the elementary school driving their kids when it’s 40 degrees outside. Last week a mom who lives two blocks away was first in the pickup lane, which means she had to get to school crazy early in the afternoon. I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she had to be someplace right after dismissal, I thought. Yet as I walked home with my daughters, I watched her minivan pull back into her driveway at home. The bike scenario is no better. Each day an average of four lonely-looking bikes are parked in the racks. Perhaps parents don’t allow their children to walk or bike because they’re concerned about traffic they’ll encounter, but adding more cars to the mix exacerbates the problem.

I don’t recommend that parents send kids out alone to potentially get hit by a car or abducted (although abductions by strangers are less common than headlines would have us believe). It’s also true that some families don’t have the option to walk. Maybe a parent has to get to work immediately after dropping off the kids and walking just isn’t practical. Some families live near enough to school that their children don’t qualify to ride the bus but are still far enough away that walking may be more of an ordeal than driving. This discussion also doesn’t apply to families whose children attend private schools that may be many miles from home. Many families have legitimate reasons for driving. Yet the number of public school students who ride in cars to school is, well, epidemic. It seems like many parents drive their kids just because.

If parents are already taking their kids to school by car and it only takes a few minutes to walk, and if you can spare those few minutes, why not walk with the kids? It’s good for the environment when cars aren’t burning gasoline while idling in the drop off and pickup lanes – and it would be nice if students who walk didn’t have to breathe those fumes. Of course the best reason to walk is exercise. With all the concern about our country’s obesity rate, and particularly our childhood obesity rate, walking to school seems like an obvious way to improve public health.

A little cold, fresh air never hurt anyone. In fact, it’s probably one of those experiences that builds character. So invest in a warm coat. Put on your snow boots. And don’t forget your umbrella!

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