As Matthew Pinkney wrote in the Herald Sun recently ("Fears blur reality", May 16, 2005) we have to accept that it’s impossible to give our kids a life without risks. What price the "… crushing of community ties and neighbourhood friendships" as we cocoon our children in cars so they are “safe” in a dangerous and disconnected society?
Friday, May 20, 2005 marked a milestone in our efforts in getting our kids walking on the streets again. An enormous amount of enthusiasm, commitment and inventiveness across the state culminated in Australia’s first Walking School Bus Symposium, which VicHealth hosted in Melbourne.
The Walking School Bus was first suggested in the UK more than a decade ago. It’s a simple idea - a group of children taking a designated route to school with a parent or a volunteer up the front as the “driver” and another as a “conductor”. The Bus picks up kids on the way to school, and drops them off at home or at a designated point to meet their parents.
Research shows that our levels of walking to school have declined drastically over the last 30 years. Our children even walk to school less frequently than in cold climates such as Canada and Sweden. And it is occurring at the same time as physical activity declines at home because of the competing attractions of the “bum-to-couch glue” such as television, video, DVD, Internet, and screen games.
We have become increasingly concerned about the uncontrolled rise of overweight and obesity associated with declining levels of physical activity. Findings from previous studies and from our own researchers such as Dr Jo Salmon and her colleagues at Deakin University show that “stranger danger”, road safety fears, time and convenience are the major reasons why parents drive their children to school. So as parents, we have felt that it has become fashionable parenting to drive children rather than have them walk to school. Car ownership has risen six fold in the last fifty years, so the means to get there is also much more available.
With the assistance of many state government departments, we set up the Walking School Bus in Victoria to get kids back on the footpaths again. It started in 4 councils - Port Phillip, Greater Dandenong, Whittlesea and Campaspe - and in 16 primary schools, with only 100 children. We now have 53 councils, with over 200 schools and more than 2,000 students participating. Yarra Ranges has the shiniest bus to date - they have 7 schools with 250 kids walking and Geelong has 18 schools with more than 230 children involved.
We have found that although only 30 per cent of primary aged pupils walk to school, 60 per cent would prefer to walk to school. And the reason they most like it is for the chance to talk with their friends. Schools like it because it helps to cut down road and parking congestion - car park rage has gone down. Councils like it for the same reason and environmental groups like it as it helps to cut down ozone-depleting car emissions. And from a safety point of view it is putting people back on our streets and on our footpaths, which helps to make our neighbourhoods safer places to be. Children are also learning skills that can be used for independent walking.
The Bus, although only really in its infancy, has already had some surprising positive spin-offs - in Churchill it is helping get kids to school who wouldn’t otherwise get there. It has become a major driver (excuse the pun) in developing school travel plans for getting kids to and from school. Early evidence from the UK suggests that for boys at least, walking on the bus is associated with them being more active at home after school.
Some ask me why does this cost money, why do you need a program and why doesn’t it just happen spontaneously? Well to begin with, for the Bus to run, all the volunteers and parents have to be engaged, then trained and have police checks, and school bus routes have to be audited for safety. This requires time, energy, knowledge and people. It does cost money and as successful programs such as SunSmart have shown, it will take persistence, money, co-operation, partnership and compromise to ensure that we get them in every primary school; and operating at a level where we can significantly increase the number of kids walking to school.
There is also urgency in this challenge. If we can’t get this to work across the state in this generation, then no-one will be able to remember what it's like to walk to school, and we will metaphorically, if not literally, lose our legs.
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