Some of world’s ‘most chauffeured’
The Australian Heart Foundation claims our children are among the “most chauffeured” in the world, with two-thirds of five to six-year-olds and more than half of nine to 10-year-olds being driven to school every day.
Statistics in the 2016 Australia’s Health Tracker and Getting Australia’s Health on Track documents, produced by the Australian Health Policy collaboration, suggest 70 per cent of Australian children aged five to 11 don’t meet the recommended guidelines of at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day.
The potential ‘incidental exercise’ of walking, riding or scooting to school could help, says Heart Foundation Victoria’s active communities co-ordinator Lisa Speirs.
“Walking to school is a fun and simple way to get kids moving, and it comes with a host of benefits,” she says. “It helps kids get some of the physical activity they need to stay healthy, and it helps them create healthy habits for life. Regular physical activity also helps children think, concentrate and solve problems.”
Ride2School is a nationwide program from Bicycle Network designed to help schools encourage children to be active on their journey to school. Ride2School’s Sarah Diamond says an active lifestyle for children needs to be about more than organised sports.
“A recent report found that physical activity in the morning has an impact on a child’s concentration and their ability to understand the curriculum for up to four hours afterwards. There’s overwhelming evidence that it has an impact.”
A path to independence
Clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller takes a longer view of the topic, saying it is an essential part of a child’s development to learn how to negotiate the wider world, and to develop an ability to recognise genuine dangers.
“If you grow up thinking everything is a threat, then you don’t often react when there is a real threat,” Andrew says. “You have got to learn in your life what to trust and what not to trust.
“So, walking to school, you’ve got to learn that at the corners you stop and you look carefully both ways and all that kind of stuff, but while you’re walking along the footpath you’re fine.
“You’ve got to learn when to be attentive to your safety and when not, when to relax that attentiveness.
“If you want your child to be safe in the world, they have to be able to pick dangerous situations from non-dangerous ones.”
‘Let them see what you’re doing’
RACV’s manager of road user behaviour, Melinda Spiteri, believes the key is education. “It’s about role-modelling good behaviour, so your kids can see what you’re doing and get that exposure,” Melinda says, adding that research shows that most children are not able to safely negotiate traffic independently until they are 11 or 12 years old.
“You don’t just go from driving them in the car to letting them run free,” she says. “You start walking with them, let them get used to it, talk them through what you’re doing, how you’re looking at the cars to know when it’s safe to cross, being aware of everything around, traffic signals, meeting the eye of the driver to make sure they’re going to stop at pedestrian crossings. All those things you can teach while walking with them.”
What Sarah Diamond and Andrew Fuller acknowledge is that adults tend to perceive themselves as time-poor. Taking the children to school by car removes imaginary stranger dangers and gets us to work on time.
“Parents think it’s faster for them to drive their kids to school, rather than walking and teaching them how to look out for danger and how to feel safe in the world,” Andrew says. “So sometimes you’ve got to say, ‘Let’s not take the car, let’s walk’.”
But these things can also be taught outside peak hour. Ideally, parents should walk their children around their neighbourhood outside school drop-offs, so they can get a sense of roads, strangers and the outside world.
Elizabeth Graham says walking to school with her son prompted some of their best talks.
“You know the route, and it’s not new, and there’s nobody else there, so you have chats,” she says. “It happens organically, and it was a really lovely part of that time together.”