Small Steps

walk to school

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:

saferoutesinfo.org

walkbiketoschool.org

 

 

 

 

11 comments

  • Pingback: Teens and Screens: The Social, The Scary, and the Sedentary | Healthy Activist

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  • Alyse

    Very cool blog, Lexie!! Can’t wait to hear more about your continued health activism :-). Sounds like you tried this a few years ago – any plans for a Walking Wednesdays 2.0?

    • Thanks for the compliment Alyse! You’ll for sure hear a LOT more from me:) but I’m hoping to hear from lots of others too so we can share stories and be more effective spreading the word about healthy environments. So please feel free to chime in always! To respond to your question, no current plans for Walking Wednesdays 2.0. And that is simply because I’ve moved away from that neighborhood. Where my children go to school now, in Chatham County, the environment is more rural, homes are spread out, and there are no sidewalks. Although, I’m inspired by another commenter here, my friend Nina, whose PTA got a half million dollar Safe Routes to School grant to put in those sidewalks where she lives in New York, which is also semi-rural. That would have to be our first step.

  • Diane Beth

    hi Lexie, great blog, love the message. Keep up all your great work

  • nina friscia

    http://www.uab.edu/reporter/off-the-clock/be-healthy/item/4027-walking-bus-program

    I have been feeling like I am impulsive, writing e-mails, connecting with environmentalists, networking almost feel crazed! Trying to find new ways to get people to change habits because we are experiencing a water crisis of sorts here on the island. Creating a vision of what needs to be changed and sticking with the idea…..From the book we are using in the webinar…

    To hold firm to the impulse while remaining flexible requires that we understand the impulse of our vision and make sure it stays intact. The impulse represents the essence of the vision and, if we have really given ourselves permission to dream, emanates from the deepest place in our soul. Gandhi called this power satyagraha or soul force. This is where we get the passion needed to push through the inevitable challenges and resistances we encounter on the path to manifesting our vision in the world.

    David Gershon (0101-01-01T00:00:00+00:00). Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World (Kindle Locations 3208-3211). High Point. Kindle Edition.

  • nina friscia

    Great Blog! Great idea! I may steal it Walkin Wednesdays
    The big hurdle for Springs in East Hampton NY is there are no sidewalks and everybody is super frightened about kids getting hit by cars, that fear has basically taken hold of any freedom to think outside of the box. I made several attempts over the years with different PTA’s and each time the red flag that went up was DANGER.
    One of our BOE members was the driving force to apply for the SRTS grant. A lot of thought and hard work went into the grant, which she along several other key players wrote. It was accepted and the school district was awarded the 1/2 million for sidewalks, lights, special drains and storm water curbing, speed indicators and signage. I was put on the committee as the PTA rep because over the years I had been dancing that swan song about the walking school bus. Naturally when and if they got the money it would be me to rally the masses…HA! Still after our district was awarded the grant it’s considered way too dangerous until the construction begins…. I think we will pull off a heavily policed and parented symbolic walk to school for Earth Day 2014, but any kind of regular Wednesday Walk would be a very surprising.
    This is where I need to stop and say I am taking a webinar on changing behavior and changing our world…
    Several important ideas I have been introduced to over the past few weeks, which may be old ideas to others reading this….
    1) Think Big… if your ideas are toned down then no one will notice or pay attention to what you are offering.
    2) Preach to the Choir… the early adopters of ideas are the people who will make it happen by getting the late-adopters and non-idea adopters involved.
    3) You have to go past conventional thinking to tap into your own imagination and self trust.
    4) Cultivate an attitude of hopefulness to have the inner strength to meet big challenges and make possibilities convincing.
    5) Break down the community into homes, blocks, neighborhoods, town, county, state and so on…have key people communicating with and leading their own small group to motivate and educate.
    6) Break down 4 W’s (in my case, it would be)
    Who? Parents, school district administration, teacher public safety and police department
    What? Creating a map, comprehensive plan and walking bus model
    Where? Springs East Hampton NY
    When? In the next year, (construction of new sidewalks should begin in the next 2 years.) if we could get a larger group of kids walking with parents with some police guidance in the beginning of the campaign on County Road-Springs Fire Place coming from town going north east on the south east side of street which already has side walks.

    • Nina,

      Those are great ideas. I think number 1, “Think Big,” is really important. One of the problems I had with Walking Wednesdays was that it was so small people couldn’t understand the big picture of what I was trying to accomplish. If you’re going to start small, like I did, you have to communicate the “Think Big.” That is AMAZING that you got the 1/2 million dollar SRTS grant for sidewalks! That is HUGE! You just can’t walk to school without them. Good luck and keep us updated!

  • India Grace

    I love what you’re doing with Heathy Active+ist. It’s very important that this generations children and all generations to come have a healthy & active life. Good Job :)

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