This Wednesday, Oct. 3, scores of area students will join millions worldwide in celebration of International Walk to School Day.
Where children and their families can safely walk to school, they get physical activity, reduce traffic congestion and related air pollution, and engage in their community in a way that is not possible from the inside of a car.
Where walking conditions are not ideal, this annual event can be the catalyst for a community to identify opportunities to improve basic streetscape, making the neighborhood safer for all of its residents.
In 1996, Walk to School Day began as a campaign to draw attention to the need for safer, more walkable communities. The call for this awareness remains just as urgent today. More than 21,000 school-aged children were killed or hospitalized as a result of their injuries as a pedestrian or bicyclist in California in 2010, according to the Department of Public Health.
A walk audit of the school surroundings can improve awareness of the particular challenges a neighborhood may face in navigating a safe route to school. In 2011, 57 percent of Walk to School events around the country led to the addition of sidewalks, paths, signage, crosswalks, or crossing guards to make the trip to school safer and more comfortable, and this is a potential outcome for schools in the Crescent City area.
Even where it is safe to walk, fewer of our children are doing it. Missing this daily opportunity for physical activity, along with the general decrease in regular exercise, is taking a toll on our children's health. A lack of physical activity plays a leading role in rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems among young people, and can lead to a sedentary lifestyle as an adult.
We do not need to look far to see the impact on our children: 44 percent of our students are overweight or obese, according to Del Norte County schools information for the 2009-10 school year, and 81 percent of our fifth grade students tested did not meet California Department of Education physical fitness standards in 2011.
However, children who walk to and from school each day are more likely to meet their recommended level of 60 minutes per day of physical activity than those who do not walk, and they are more likely to become healthy and active adults.
When recently asked to be the champion for the Safe Routes to School project, I felt the clock turning back to a time 40 years into the past. We hitched a ride from Dad on his way to work in the morning to the bus stop at the highway and on the return trip home we were dropped off at the highway and walked two dusty miles home. I learned to love the peace and independence that the walking afforded me and I had no idea that I was actually working on those walks and setting the tone for life-long fitness.
We encourage you visit your school office or website to find out what activities are happening at your school Wednesday. Rethink your day, walk or bike to school with your child.
If you live more than a mile from your school, consider carpooling with other families to save gas (and money), cut down on vehicle emissions and traffic, and allow each parent to take a free day from driving.
Perhaps my walking to school bears little resemblance to our children walking or biking to school today, but we need to find ways to develop good health habits for our children and to examine what things we can change as a community to make the lives of our next generation healthier and safer.
Visit the Safe Routes to School website at www.walkbiketoschool.org for more information, ask about activities at your neighborhood school site, or call to volunteer at (707) 464-9651.
Karen Phillips is a resident of Del Norte County and owner of PS Business Services.