When  struggling to get ready in the morning and out the door, many parents wonder if walking and/or cycling to school is worth the effort. Let us assure it is. By walking and/or cycling to school, your children are establishing healthy habits for the future, and will learn many important life lessons. Aside from keeping your children healthy, reducing impacts on the environment, increasing neighbourhood safety and community connection (can you tell I could go on?), new research shows that participating in elementary school walking programs can actually impact children’s attitudes and perceptions around active travel.

Robin Kearns of the University of Auckland just published a research study “Downstream Benefits of Children Walking” in which he and a group of researchers interviewed 20 students between the ages of 12-16 that had participated in Walking School Bus programs when in elementary school. A Walking School Bus (WSB) is a group of children walking to school with one or more adults, traveling along a specific route and picking up students along the way. Auckland has had formal walking school buses for at least a decade, meaning there are set routes, specific stops and pickup times led by parent volunteers or school staff. In Manitoba, the concept is still quite young, so I was inspired to learn that our work to support schools in this effort is valuable and meaningful in the future of our children.

Kearns paired down 197 pages of interview responses from the students (boy, teens can talk!) into some key themes to see how participating in a WSB impacted their perceptions around active travel. Seven key themes from the interviews included:

1. Parents can have an influence on children’s attitudes to walking:

One participant commented on how they felt embarrassed to walk with a parent to school, and the WSB gave them chance to walk with friends.

2. Enhances personal independence

Students felt that walking enabled them to develop a sense of independence in a way that children being driven would not.

3. ‘Graduation’ from the WSB was inevitable and beneficial

Students commented on how with age, they felt old enough to walk themselves and found the WSB came to feel a bit embarrassing and slow. This highlights the fact that WSBs serve a specific need and age group, and that graduating is an important part!

4. The behaviour of walking persists

Students felt that participating in the WSB has kept them walking. One student mentioned the benefits of having an opportunity to stretch their legs before school instead of being driven and never getting a chance to wake up.

5. WSBs help parents to give kids a later ‘license’ to walk

Some students mentioned that now they have built a relationship and sense of trust with their parents, and are able to stop at a park or friends house on the way home from school. The ability to call from a cell phone or text their parents their whereabouts also seemed to be a theme here.

6. Walking as unstructured space & time between home and school

Students highlighted the need for unstructured space to socialize between home and school. One student mentioned the important time spent with her friends on the walk home from school, sometimes even taking 45 minutes to walk 2 kilometres!

7. Subdued driving aspirations

Several students mentioned a reduced desire or reluctance to get their drivers permits. However the growing desire for independence was still present, though often expressed in cycling.

Most students that participated in the study identified the ways the Walking School Bus had influenced their current willingness to walk or reluctance to rush into driving.

Interested in starting a Walking School Bus program in your community? Checkout our Active and Safe Routes to School Handbook chapter on Walking School Buses, and read about how it was setup for International Walk to School Month this October in Thompson Manitoba. The initiative was part of Wapanohk’s School Travel Planning project.