When I was in elementary school, I took the bus to school—a bone-jarring 45-minute ride that I hated. Though I was prone to motion sickness and the target of bullies, the worst part of the bus trip was watching the kids from town walk or ride their bikes to class. From my perch on those dreadful brown vinyl seats, walking to school looked like so much more fun than taking the bus. Even walking on rainy days seemed like a vast improvement over the bus ride to town. (Disclaimer: We did have a bus driver who loved to listen to Corey Hart as much as I did, so 1985 was a good year to ride the bus to school.)
Because my childhood bus trips were so miserable, I'd always dreamed I'd be able to walk my own kids to school. Of course, when my husband and I decided to leave the city and move to the country five years ago, I gave up that notion and Isaac, 9, and Gillian, 5, joined the ranks of Canadian kids who are driven or bused to school. According to a new national survey from FedEx Canada and Parachute, 70 percent of children ages five to 14 take public transit, a school bus or are driven to school. What's keeping the majority of Canadian kids from taking active transportation to school? Fear. According to the survey, parents' top concerns are traffic accidents (75 percent), abduction (38 percent) and their child's lack of maturity (36 percent). Bullying and lack of sidewalks are other worries parents have about letting their kids walk or bike to school.
Unlike urban kids, who may only have a block or two to get to school, Isaac and Gillian have a three kilometre trek—a distance that isn't realistic to walk, but one that can be easily covered on two wheels. In fact, even since Isaac saw one of his classmates whiz by our bus stop on his bike, he's been begging me to let him do the same. And while I'm the first to let my kids go play outside unsupervised, I find myself sharing the same fears as the parents in Parachute's survey: There aren't sidewalks where we live and while they ride their bikes my kids often daydream and weave all over the road. It's enough to even make the bravest free-range parent cringe.
But I've made a deal with my kids: If they can prove to me they have the bike-handling skills and street smarts to make it to school, I'll let them go. We have a common goal of doing this before the end of the school year and, admittedly, they have a long way to go—so I'm starting slowly, by running and riding the school route with them. My rules for the road are strict: They have to wear bike helmets, stay on the shoulder of the road and ride with a group of friends.
These are also rules that Louise Logan, Parachute's president and CEO, says help keep kids safe. “We want parents to continue the important job of showing their children safe pedestrian practices,” says Logan. "And we are asking drivers to reduce speed and focus on keeping pedestrians safe. By all working together, our kids will be able to walk safely to and from school this spring.”
I really do believe that there's never been a safer time to have our children walk or bike to school on their own. It might take a bit of practice, but I know we'll get there. I hope you'll get there, too.
Read more: Confessions of a free-range parent>