Posted by: bkivey | 7 September 2010

Getting to School

Today marks the first day of the new school year in public school districts across the country, and an essay in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required to read) by Lenore Skenazy on how kids get to school started me thinking about the differences in expectations between now and the time I was in elementary and secondary school. According to the essay, only about 1 in 10 children walk to school these days. If true, this represents a tremendous shift in the expectations adults have for their children from the time I a kid.

No, I didn’t have to walk three miles to the one-room schoolhouse uphill both ways in the snow, but the expectation was that if you couldn’t walk to school, you must be too sick to go. The closest we lived to a school was under 1000 feet and the farthest was about 3/5 of a mile (1 km. in new money). I don’t remember what the minimum radius for bus service was, but there weren’t any school bus stops in our neighborhood, so it must have been more than 1K.

When we lived at the 1K distance we had to cross an active railroad track (no signals) and one of the busier roads in town (no crosswalk). No kid ever got hit by a train and I don’t think anyone got hit by a car. The expectation was that rain, shine, snow, whatever; you would get up, get ready, and leave the house in time to walk to school and arrive on time. When the final bell rang there would be the expected line of buses and a few cars, but what you mostly saw was a tide of kids walking away from the campus. One of the things I looked forward to in high school was that my walking commute would be cut in half.

In the intervening decades people have become convinced that all manner of misfortune will befall their offspring if they are not shuttled everywhere. This perception is fueled in large part by media coverage of missing children incidents and the inherent newsworthiness of such events. Hard data on actual rates of child abductions are surprisingly hard to come by, although indications are that such incidents as a percentage of population appear to be declining, and the great majority of such incidents are not caused by nefarious strangers cruising the streets. (If you’re interested, there are reports here, here, here, and here. Kudos to the site www.kidsfightingchance.com for providing source material references.)

While circumstances vary, it doesn’t seem too much to ask of the average healthy child to walk a half-mile or so to school each day. They can burn calories, enjoy the outdoors, brave the elements, and in a few years they can bore their kids with stories of their own.


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