Walking or Biking to School Primes the Brain to Learn

Research shows that kids who get to school under their own steam enjoy learning benefits in the classroom. Unfortunately, varying social factors and infrastructural limitations often make such commutes difficult, if not impossible.

Washington City Paper, a really terrific publication, has an interesting piece up today by Tanya Snyder on how parents in the nation's capital manage frustrating commutes to and from city schools. DC doesn't offer school bus service for most kids and few campuses sport the necessary infrastructure for car commuting. This wouldn't be too much of a problem if every kid attended a school in their neighborhood, but that's not always the case. In particular, getting to and from the city's charter schools — for which enrollment is contingent on lucking out in a lottery — can be a daily nightmare. Several of DC's charter schools have experienced recent sudden location shifts that have landed them in more remote parts of the city, some even without sidewalks.

Snyder talks to parents who strive to organize headache-inducing commute schedules. Some of the details may be a little too site-specific for general readership, but I still encourage you to give the article a look for several interesting points that get brought up. Most notable among those:

"Back in 1969, 48 percent of U.S. kids aged 5 to 14 usually got to school on their own steam — walking or riding a bike. These days, it’s more like 13 percent. Kids who get fresh air and exercise on their way to school arrive more ready to learn. Physical activity has been shown to improve attention span, classroom behavior, and academic achievement...

... Spanish researchers found that a walk to school of more than 15 minutes improved cognitive function, especially in girls. They noted that the plasticity of the brain during adolescence makes it an especially important time to stimulate cognitive function. Walking and biking can also help stem the childhood obesity epidemic and reduce the incidence of diabetes."

Snyder also notes that anywhere from 10-14% of morning rush hour traffic consists of school drop-offs. That's both inefficient, dangerous (considering more cars driving near a school make for more perilous road/walking conditions), and something you'd think would be fixable somehow. The research suggests more parents should walk or bike their kids to school, or at least allow their kids to make the commute themselves, but varying social factors and infrastructure limitations seem to be getting in the way of that. As you can probably imagine, the beneficial bell curve plunges when safety hazards become a major concern. That's why it's important that city planners and school board officials work together to ensure safe routes to local schools for kids and their parents. Pedestrian-only zones would be a major plus and a comforting safeguard for children who would benefit from a little physical activity in the morning.

Read more at Washington City Paper.

Below, NYU Professor of Nutrition Marion Nestle discusses the dangers of unhealthy school lunches.

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