Thursday, February 07, 2013

Students who walk or bike to school concentrate better

Eric sent me an article last night about The link between kids who walk or bike to school and concentration.  I haven't been able to get our school administrators to request a crossing guard, despite everyone agreeing that the intersection we cross is fairly dangerous for pedestrians. Zari's kindergarten has implemented drastic new security protocols since the school shooting in Connecticut, including a lock-down policy and intercom buzzer to get in the front door. My school "can't afford" to supply a crossing guard for 20-30 minutes a day total, even though we cross that street four times a day, five days a week. Yet after Newtown, her school immediately spent untold thousands of dollars to prevent a highly unlikely event. Because they "care deeply about students' safety."

So maybe the safety angle just won't work with our local elementary school. Maybe they will support students walking or biking to school if I can demonstrate that driving or busing to school  negatively affects children's concentration. 

I stand firm that we are doing Zari a favor by walking her to and from school every day. She's learning to rely on her own two legs to get her places, rather than on burning fossil fuels. She's getting 2 kilometers of extra exercise every day. She's learning that walking isn't always easy or fun in the winter, but that it's worth the effort of bundling up and getting fresh air.

For now, though, we are alone in our commitment to walking and biking our child to school.* The bike rack remains unused except for Zari's lone bicycle.

Don't you love the awesome spray paint job on her bike? Vive le Canada!

Here's the article by Sarah Goodyear from the Atlantic Cities (emphasis mine):

Every day outside my son’s Brooklyn school, no matter what the weather, you will see a distinctive pale blue bicycle locked to the rack. It belongs to a 7th-grade girl from a Dutch family whose members have stuck with their traditional practice of riding to school each day, despite finding themselves in the not-so-bike-friendly United States for a few years. This lovely blue city bike was a gift from the parents to their eldest child, who is now almost as tall as a grown woman. She has graduated from riding with her parents, and deserves a first-class vehicle to get to class each day. She is fiercely proud of it.

According to the results of a Danish study released late last year, my Dutch friends are giving their daughter a less tangible but more lasting gift along with that bicycle: the ability to concentrate better. The survey looked at nearly 20,000 Danish kids between the ages of 5 and 19. It found that kids who cycled or walked to school, rather than traveling by car or public transportation, performed measurably better on tasks demanding concentration, such as solving puzzles, and that the effects lasted for up to four hours after they got to school.

The study was part of "Mass Experiment 2012," a Danish project that looked at the links between concentration, diet, and exercise.

Niels Egelund of Aarhus University in Denmark, who conducted the research, told AFP that he was surprised that the effect of exercise was greater than that of diet:
"The results showed that having breakfast and lunch has an impact, but not very much compared to having exercised," Egelund told AFP. "As a third-grade pupil, if you exercise and bike to school, your ability to concentrate increases to the equivalent of someone half a year further in their studies," he added.
...In an article about the Danish study from the Davis Enterprise, Egelund says that he thinks there is a deep connection between the way we move our bodies and the way our minds work:
“I believe that deep down we were naturally and originally not designed to sit still,” Egelund said. “We learn through our head and by moving. Something happens within the body when we move, and this allows us to be better equipped afterwards to work on the cognitive side.”
Lots of parents drive their kids to school because walking or driving on streets and roads designed exclusively for cars makes the journey prohibitively dangerous for anyone, especially children. That problem is not easily solved, especially since schools are increasingly being built on the edges of sprawling development, rather than in a walkable context. [PDF]

But many other parents drive their kids because it’s easier, or seems to be easier. They often frame it as a kindness to the child to spare them “trudging” all the way to school, even if that trek is only half a mile long. As these short driving trips become the societal norm, it gets more and more difficult for families to deviate from them. School traffic begets school traffic.

So what could turn the trend around? The connection between active transportation and better physical fitness is well-documented and intuitively easy to draw, and yet apparently not compelling enough....Nationally, as of 2009, only 13 percent of kids in the United States walked or biked to school, down from 50 percent in 1969.

But if more parents realized that packing the kids into the back seat actually affects their ability to learn, would they change their ways? Advocate for building schools in more walkable locations? Demand improved bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure? Or simply make the time and effort required to get to the kids to school under their own steam, accompanying them if need be?

Many parents pay for test prep and after-school enrichment programs to make their kids more academically competitive, and go to great lengths to schedule time for those activities. Imagine if they invested those resources instead in something as simple as helping their children to travel safely from home to school on foot or by bike, arriving ready to learn.

Read the rest of the article here

Other articles on this subject: 
  • "Car children" learn less in school (The Davis Enterprise). In this article, researcher Niels Egelund comments: “This result means that the parents have an enormous responsibility. I have a child in third grade and a child in ninth grade. I find it a great pity to see how many students are driving to school. You see long lines of cars in front of the school; some drove a very short distance. Parents should really pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
  • Exercise before school improves concentration: study (AFP)
  • Marc Schlossberg, Page Paulsen Phillips, Bethany Johnson, and Bob Parker. "How Do They Get There? A Spatial Analysis of a ‘Sprawl School’ in Oregon." Planning, Practice & Research, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 147 – 162, May 2005 (PDF). From the introduction: "For over 50 years, communities across the United States (US) have experienced a shift away from small, neighbourhood schools to large ones located on the urban periphery. Two effects of this type of ‘sprawl school siting’ are increased traffic congestion during school pick-up and drop-off times and decreased walking and cycling by children accessing school....When school sites are remote, and children do not walk or ride bikes to school, they are deprived of the opportunity to exercise. This, in combination with a variety of other factors (poor diets, television, the popularity of video/computer games) has lead to an increase in the number of overweight and obese children in the US."

* There are 2-3 families living in the immediate neighborhood who also walk; they don't have to cross any busy intersections because they live on the other side of the highway.


  1. I find it so amazing that people don't already know this. When I was in elementary school our teachers certainly did; we had frequent mini movement breaks to "get the wiggles out and the blood moving to our brains."

    One of my favorite things about where I grew up and still live is the extensive network of bike paths that allow you to walk/bike almost anywhere. There are also sidewalks on at least one side of almost every road, lots of crosswalks, and even pedestrian overpasses in some of the busiest spots when kids would be crossing for school. Unfortunately although my husband and I (like my parents) specifically bought a house where our kids could walk/bike to elementary, middle, and high school my son currently takes the bus. He has a developmental disability and the closest school with an appropriate pre-school class for him is too far for us to walk. That's why the first thing he does when he gets to school is spend 15 min in the physical/occupational therapy room to get the movement and physical input he needs to do his best.

  2. I'll let my kids know this when they get home from school. The three school kids walk both ways every day. They don't ask for rides anymore, they're just used to it.

  3. In a Virginia elementary school, where my brother teaches, they have a before school running club. This is a fabulous idea, especially as many of these children are bussed or driven from rural areas where it would be a danger for children to walk or ride bikes- not too mention the distance they would have to travel. I am all for excercise for children, and the earlier in the day, the better. I'm pretty sure that the running club is free- another bonus!

  4. I saw the Davis Enterprise one last week. Important stuff. My parents made sure we lived in walking distance of all our schools- probably for their own convenience, though. It gets tricky when they hit seminary age, though, and you might have to travel even further- requiring a car.

    Here in Oakland, our school district has a lottery for schools and you aren't guarantee that you're child will get your local school. Additionally, Oakland doesn't have school buses because the lottery system mixes everyone up so much, resulting in lots of cars idling at school pick up/drop offs.

    Question- did you paint Zari's bike yourselves? It's awesome!

  5. Yep, we painted it ourselves. It used to be a really beat-up silver/fluorescent orange & yellow bike that we got for free. The paint job isn't holding up super well--I probably should have bought automotive-grade paint & clear coat rather than regular spray paint--but hey, it's better than what we had before.

    I am seriously thinking that my kids will do home-study seminary. I really, really don't like having to drive them all over the place as soon as they hit 9th grade. Plus I could have more control over what they learn :) We'd have lots of lessons on Heavenly Mother etc.

  6. I commute by bike to my office and hospital (I'm an ob/gyn) spring thru fall. I admit to being a bit of a wimp in the winter. My oldest son's preschool is right on one of the many bike/walking paths my community has so I have a trail-a-bike and he rides behind me. I just drop him off at school with his helmet, finish my commute with the empty bike behind me and then his father can pick him up by car (if he's feeling lazy) or in the double trailer with the 2 year old. I'm hoping by kindergarden next year he'll be confident enough that he can ride his bike with me (not great at stopping at intersections yet). It's only 2-3 miles but we love it--best part of both of our days. In fact, we commute only by bike in the good weather. My kids just expect that when I say we're going somewhere they need to get their helmets. That being said, I do drive into the hospital in the middle of the night for a quick delivery ;) By the way, I live in south-central Indiana so this is possible even in the rural midwest.

  7. Thanks for this! My first thought is that I hope we live close enough to a school so that my kids can walk or bike to school, but then I remember that I would often walk the 2-3 miles from my house to my school instead of taking the city bus because it gave me time to think, read while I walked, and just enjoy being out and about. I want to remember that when my kid is older -- a couple miles won't hurt them, and in fact it doesn't take that long (20-30 minutes)!

  8. I loved riding my bike to school. When we moved to the place we are currently residing, the elementary schools (one is K-1, the other 2-3)are just THREE blocks away. The middle school (6-8) and the other elementary school (4-5) are close to 1.5 miles away, yet thee high school is much closer. I even roller-bladed to school when I was in 5th grade. I wish my siblings had the enthusiasm to do this too as I did. Although I was much more enthusiastic about it.

  9. The Safe Routes to School program of the Federal Highway Administration has the right idea. It supports school communities to identify safe routes and then educate students and parents about them.

  10. This post is so critical, and informative! Thanks for writing about something I'm pretty passionate about, myself. I tweeted a link to my hubby so hopefully he will read it too =) Important stuff!


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