When I lived in Japan my host family had two elementary age daughters, and every morning their mom would wake them up, feed them, and get them ready just in time to make the bus — only this bus wasn’t a bus at all, it was a walking school bus! It’s actually a common sight in Japan, elementary school children in two straight lines, being lead to school by an adult chaperone. (Just like a scene from Madeleine!)
So, what is a walking school bus?
Well, WalkingSchoolBus.org provides this description of what you can expect:
A walking school bus is a group of children walking to school with one or more adults. If that sounds simple, it is, and that’s part of the beauty of the walking school bus. It can be as informal as two families taking turns walking their children to school to as structured as a route with meeting points, a timetable and a regularly rotated schedule of trained volunteers.
In my host sisters’ cases the walking school bus was monitored by PTA volunteers, who each took turns walking children from their area to school for a week at a time. This small difference in getting to school actually presented a little bit of a culture shock to me, because it was such a stark contrast to the early morning parking lot traffic jams that I experienced as a kid.
My school was no farther away than my host sisters’ school had been (maybe a 15 minute walk at the most) but my parents insisted on driving me there almost morning. Even when you know it’s an unnecessary car ride for a more-than-walkable distance, there’s always an excuse. Your parents need to go to work and it’s sort-of-on-the-way-but-not-really, or it’s ‘too dangerous’ to go alone, or you’ll just fool around and be late, or (for us Canadians) it’s just too darn cold. But none of these reasons trump the benefits that can be gained from ditching the car and walking to school.
First of all, there’s the physical health benefits associated with daily exercise, even if it’s something small like walking. Japan has rather low childhood obesity rates, with only 16.2% of boys and 14.3% of girls facing obesity compared to Canada’s 32.3% and 25.8% respectively. While walking to school alone is definitely not the only factor behind this, the type of culture that comes from relying on your own two feet rather than a car does seem to create more active kids, and parents can certainly learn from their example!
Another benefit of the walking school bus is of course, cutting down on emissions. Without the need to drive your children to school and pick them up every day, you not only cut down on emissions from driving, but from idling while waiting in those long parking lot lines and waiting for your kids to slowly make it over to the car while talking to their friends. Plus, it’s a teachable moment for your kids, reminding them that they should try to do as much as they can without depending on fossil fuels, such as walking short distances!
There’s also other benefits that are less tangible though: walking to school with their classmates gives children extra chances to socialize. Because the walking school bus is based on area and not on grade level, it usually means kids can interact with other kids they might not usually play with, like at Van Derveer Elementary School. In the case of Japan, each kid has a partner with them that they are ‘responsible’ for as part of the buddy system, so it also teaches team work and caring for one another.
The daily presence of children walking to and from school also brings up important issues about the walkability of the community. When you first start up a walking school bus in your neighbourhood you’re sure to notice all sorts of anti-pedestrian infrastructure that you never noticed before, such as: lack of crossing guards or crosswalks, no sidewalks in some neighbourhoods, speeding cars/poorly enforced traffic rules that put pedestrians at risk, and more. These are things that ultimately affect everyone, and should be improved.
Overall, while they might take a bit of initial planning and set up, walking school buses are a very viable way of promoting more walkable communities, while also looking out for your children’s health. All it takes is getting some key players on board, namely parents and schools. So make sure you get this discussion started in your local community, and don’t forget to leave a comment below as well!
Feature image credit to John Gillespie, all other images credited as linked.