Monday, October 10, 2005

Walk to School! Save Money; Get Fit!

I have fond memories of walking to Pennell Elementary School through thick piles of autumn leaves in Philadelphia. The route to school was well-marked and lined with uniformed crossing guards and badge-carrying members of the student safety squad.

I am reminded of those memories whenever I see the Barasch family walking to and from school on weekdays. Their daily drill is an exercise in saving money, gas and health, says Stuart Barasch, a lawyer and father of students of Mollie and Jacob.

Unfortunately, the once-popular stroll to school is a rare event for most families. Due to safety concerns and time constraints very few students walk to school. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) estimates that walking or biking trips account for only 15 percent of student commutes.

However, due to the double threat of childhood obesity and rising gas prices, some parents are re-thinking the carpool. (Gas prices are north of $3 a gallon and the percentage of overweight children has tripled over the last 30 years.)

Fortunately, the “Walking School Bus,” has become a popular pedestrian vehicle in some communities. Government agencies, non-profit groups and informal networks of parents are re-claiming the streets through “Walking School Bus” campaigns.

A walking school bus works just like a car pool, and consists of “ a group of children walking to school with one or more adults,” according to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, one of several organizations that promotes walking school bus programs in the United States.

At a very basic level, a walking bus or bike pool involves two families, with adults assigned to different day. On a more involved level, ambitious groups establish an elaborate system of structured routes, meeting points, volunteers and timetables. But regardless of the structure, adult participation and supervision are the keys to the car-less carpool.

The CDC recommends a ratio of one adult participant for every six children aboard the walking bus, with an option of fewer adults for students age 10 and up. However, for children ages four to six, experts recommend a one -to-three ratio.

Of course, walking your child to school requires time and organization. But busy parents can carve out extra time through substitution of work-out hours. For example, once or twice a week, a walking bus workout can take the place of a gym circuit or a tennis match.

And if your family lives too far to walk, consider a partial workout. Park your car at a healthy distance from school, and then walk the remaining blocks. Keep in mind that walking will also help you skip past lengthy and time-consuming carpool lanes at school.

Take baby steps. Begin with a limited walking schedule of once a week or even once a month. But above all, have fun.

Time spent walking with your children (and their friends) is valuable. In the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to walk with my older sons and I have really enjoyed their company. Walking is good for the heart and we’re saving on gas.

Every Saturday, I have a column Making Ends Meet that runs in the Miami Herald. The above piece is my latest column.

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