Happy Walk to School Day! My son and I walked to his school this morning, and his father will walk him home this afternoon. He’s in first grade. Sometime during his years at this K-8 school, he’ll begin walking by himself, but for now I am enjoying the walk and the time with him. We live slightly less than half a mile (five blocks) from the school, a distance we can walk in 10-15 minutes in just about any weather.
Being in a walkable neighborhood was a major consideration when we bought our home, two years before Nicholas was born. (Use Walkscore to check out the walkability of different addresses!) Walking to a good public school was only part of it: grocery store, library, post office, our church, restaurants, many other businesses, and playgrounds all are within a mile of our home, and all the streets have sidewalks. We also live near a city bus stop, and Nicholas and I commuted together by public transit every day while he was attending a preschool near my office. But being able to walk the whole way to school is even nicer! (After taking him to school, I walk another six blocks to the bus stop and go to work.)
I think it’s the pace that’s most pleasant. We’re not in a car, where I make us go faster than our bodies can go while Nicholas just sits there. We’re not hurrying to the bus stop only to stand around and wait, then climb onto a vehicle that lurches into motion at an unpredictable moment while we’re still finding seats. Although we are accustomed to both those modes of travel, they’re still more jarring than traveling on our own feet. Of course, there are days when Nicholas dawdles and I have to urge him along, and there are days when I walk too fast thinking about what I’m going to do at work and Nicholas begs me to slow down and talk to him, but in general it’s a nice walk.
There is almost always something interesting to see. That tree turned red overnight! Some mushrooms came up! Here’s a lost mitten! Real grapes are growing on this fence! Someone is walking a silly-looking dog! Even when we see nothing out of the ordinary, I enjoy passing the lovely old brick houses and hearing the trees whispering in the wind and the cars bumping along the brick-paved streets.
During the first week of school this fall, Nicholas wanted to hear stories of my experiences in first grade. That was the one year I went to Catholic school (for academic reasons–I was raised Unitarian, and we are now Episcopal) and I remembered a song my teacher used to sing with us, “This Is the Day”. Because it is a “repeat after me” kind of song, I used my two hands like puppets to sing the two parts. Nicholas immediately took this up as a daily tradition: Every morning now, we sing this song, each of us singing one part with our hand/puppet. It’s fun, it reminds my child to focus on joy and gratitude and the presence of God as he begins each day, and it reminds me to focus on those things instead of focusing on feeling tired and stressed-out as I did on too many mornings last year.
Some days, we walk to school with our neighbor, who is in third grade. (She is Jewish, but since our song is about “the Lord” and not specifically Christian, it doesn’t offend her.) She and Nicholas enjoy talking together. Her parents appreciate not having to get her to school when they both have jobs to get to and her little brother to get to childcare, but they feel she’s not quite ready to walk the whole way alone. I’m going there anyway, so it works out for all of us!
Going into the school every day helps me feel connected to my child’s world and makes it easy for me to talk with his teacher or stop by the office if I need to. I love seeing on the bulletin boards what other classes have been doing. Sometimes I chat with other parents; no great friendships have come out of it yet, but it’s nice to feel on friendly terms with some of the people I see at school events and around the neighborhood. Last winter I had the opportunity to help a mother who had just come here from Japan learn where to shop and how to use the bus system.
I grew up in a place that was not as well designed for walking as the place we live now, but I still think walking to and from school was very good for me. It was a more recently built and sprawling area, with few sidewalks. The school I attended for grades 2-6 was just half a block from my house, but that short walk could be treacherous because the streets were not designed for the volume of traffic that passed through them twice a day when parents and school buses dropped off and picked up children. There was no stop sign or yield sign at the intersection of my street, the street that crossed it in front of the school, and the school driveway. Drivers were so busy trying not to hit each other that they didn’t have much attention to spare for pedestrians! Cars would parallel-park right up to my corner on both streets. So I learned to be very cautious about edging out from between the parked cars until I could see a definite gap in traffic. Caution is good! Walking to school helped me learn safety skills.
In grades 7-10, I went to schools a mile and a half from my home, so there was a school bus–but I was often bullied on the bus, and anyway I enjoyed really long walks. I walked to those schools only a few times because it was hard to allow that much time in the morning, but I walked home more often than not. The shortest route was along a major street which did have a sidewalk, but it was a narrow, dusty sidewalk tightly wedged between the road and a tall wooden fence with barking dogs behind it. I used a map to figure out a route through unfamiliar residential areas with a maze of short, winding roads. I was nervous the first few times, until I learned all the turns, but after that it was a much nicer route, despite the grass seeds in my shoes from walking on the edges of people’s lawns. It was safer, too–on the major road, there were more cars, traveling faster, and nowhere to run if one veered off the road; in a typical walk on that sidewalk, I’d hear at least one guy holler lewdly at me as he drove past, and even if none of them ever would have harmed me physically, I felt threatened. Finding my own route gave me self-confidence. All that walking was fabulous exercise, preventing osteoporosis as well as keeping me slim and strong.
My senior high school was 5 miles away, across a floodplain, but even so I walked home a couple of times! It was a two-hour epic adventure through wilderness and trailer parks, climbing a muddy embankment to walk along the narrow shoulder of a highway bridge . . . I’m glad I didn’t have to do it every day! But I’m glad I learned that I could do it.
As a teenager I also walked a lot to stores and to friends’ houses, and doing all that walking in places not designed for walking made me all the more grateful for places that do make walking comfortable and convenient! That experience of navigating, watching out for my safety, and being responsible for myself in public spaces made it possible for me to move 1,400 miles away when I was 18 and find my way around a new place.
Walking to school works for me! Even if your neighborhood isn’t so well arranged for pedestrians or your school is far away, see if you can arrange to walk your child to (or from) school every once in a while. Maybe you could plan it as a major expedition, with hiking gear and snacks. Maybe you could take public transit or drive part of the way and walk the rest. There’s just something very invigorating about getting somewhere on your own power!
Check out Your Green Resource for other environmentally friendly ideas!