I went through a super-busy time some years ago. I was going through a lot of transitions in my life. I was getting divorced, and had full custody of my two elementary school age kids. I was starting a new career in public health, with a new full-time job as a policy analyst in physical activity and nutrition at my state health department. And I was finishing my masters degree, going to classes at night and getting up at 5 on weekends to write my thesis. You get the picture. I was busy.
Ironically, although I was spending my days researching ways to promote physical activity in communities, I had little time to promote physical activity in my own family. I was working too much to sign my kids up for organized sports. They were in an afterschool program that wasn’t terribly active. I’d pick them up at 5:30 or so and by that time they’d been in the school building for over 10 hours, mostly sitting.
I did everything I could to encourage my kids to move when they were home from school. At work I was learning about the walk to school movement, catalyzed by a wonderful organization called Safe Routes to School. All over the country, PTAs, neighborhoods and communities were organizing ways to facilitate kids walking to school safely. I thought this was a fantastic idea.
On a personal level, I knew that walking to school could be a way to add some movement to my children’s day. My own neighborhood, I realized, was perfectly set up for a walk to school program. Our elementary school was only about a half mile away. And a wonderful new paved trail through a small wooded area connected our neighborhood to the back of the elementary school. But despite the fact that the trail had been open for a year or more, few kids walked or biked to the school.
After researching other walk to school programs, I decided to start small, and organize “Walking Wednesdays.” Just once a week, parents would rotate responsibility for walking a group of kids to and from the school. The round trip would take 30-40 minutes, tops. The neighborhood was full of athletic, health conscious parents. My workplace had given me permission to be late on Wednesdays, but I’d need more parents involved. I was sure that the neighborhood parents would embrace this initiative with gusto.
I was wrong.
The biggest problem was that many of the parents just didn’t really see the point. Many of the moms who didn’t work, who might be more available to help lead the walks, had their kids in all sorts of afterschool sports. What was the point of a half mile stroll once a week? It was a drop in the bucket, and inconvenient, to boot. Don’t get me wrong, these were also moms who were active volunteers with a strong sense of community service. But I had a hard time explaining to them how leading ten kids on Walking Wednesdays was going to do anything to change our children’s health, or our community’s health.
And that is the problem with a lot of community health initiatives. Most anything we do is going to be a drop in the bucket.
To get excited about kids taking a half mile walk to school once a week, you’ve absolutely, positively got to see the bigger picture. That seeing a group of kids and parents walking could inspire more kids and more parents to participate. Maybe you could even get enough parents involved to walk every day. For kids that aren’t very physically active, a half hour of walking time every school day is a big deal – that’s half of their recommended physical activity for the day (the CDC recommends 60 minutes a day for kids). Explaining how walking to school could eventually make in impact on a child’s individual health wasn’t the hardest part. What was really hard was explaining how our little group of ten kids and two parents walking to school could make an even bigger impact on community health.
Walking to school every Wednesday was about taking one, small step to say “no” to a world where kids and adults alike sit in cars and at desks for most of their days. Where only the kids whose parents have the time and the money to sign them up for sports are active enough. Where regular, everyday exercise – walking to school, walking to the store, – is becoming obsolete.
For Walking Wednesdays to work, the neighborhood parents had to see the big picture. It was my failure that I couldn’t really get them to see or care about the big picture enough to make the initiative work long-term. Four or so years later, I’m starting Healthy Activist to try to remedy that.
Interested in encouraging your neighborhood to walk to school? Visit: