Walking School Bus: Healthy, Safe and Social

Only 16 percent of our nation’s children walk or bike to school, down from 42 percent a generation ago. Other countries, such as Australia and England, have been coordinating groups of children to walk to school together for a decade or more. these days, Rochester is receiving state recognition for its very own Walking School Bus.

Simplicity of Walking

A Walking School Bus is a group of neighborhood children walking together to school. The group is supervised by volunteer parents, referred to as “drivers.” JoAnne Judge-Dietz works for the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP), which strives to help Minnesotans lead longer, healthier lives. Judge-Dietz says a Walking School Bus is “a simple concept, but one we have lost over time. We forget how simple and smart it is to walk.”

Several Rochester elementary schools have implemented Walking School Bus programs, including Riverside, Elton Hills and Folwell as well as the Boys and Girls Club. “Getting this program started has generally been a parent-led initiative,” says Judge-Dietz. “School staff are supportive because it helps decrease the traffic congestion around the school. For every child who walks or bikes, there is one less car in the queue at pick-up and drop-off time, and fewer cars make it safer for the pedestrians and bikers. By allowing kids the opportunity to share and communicate with other kids on their way to school, there are social benefits. Most importantly, there are health benefits.” 

Active Kids Perform Better in School

A majority of today’s children are not reaching the minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity per day. This is a point Judge-Dietz is quick to mention. “Think about the difference you feel when you walk a couple of blocks versus drive a couple of blocks,” she explains. 

“When you are in the car, you are cut off from your surroundings. But when you walk, you notice nature, you feel the weather, you say hello to a neighbor. A walk can quickly reduce your stress level. Kids need that too. Taking a walk stimulates the senses, burns off energy, awakes the mind and prepares students to concentrate at school,” says Judge-Dietz.

In a study conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine, the link between physical activity in children and academic performance in school was investigated. This study concluded that the more active children were (such as participating in sports or other vigorous activity), the better they performed in school.

Having Fun, Making Good Habits

According to Judge-Dietz, adults express concern that children will lose interest or have issues walking in bad weather. But the feedback she has received puts worries to rest. “Walking to school becomes a good habit for kids,” she says. “They tell their parents how much they enjoy talking with friends in their group. For the kids, it’s fun. What child doesn’t like the chance to hop over a few puddles?”

At Walking School Bus program also aims to keep children interested through incentives such as punch cards, theme days and recognition events. Positive feedback from parents, schools and children has made Rochester a model city for the program. Judge-Dietz sums up the reason for joining the program best when she says, “Just for the health of it!”

Join or Start a New Walking School Bus

To learn about how to start a Walking School Bus, a short video created by Olmsted County Public Health is available on the Rochester Public School transportation page (youtu.be/Eo8yzi13qsA). Olmsted County Public Health can assist in setting up logistics and provide safety equipment through funds from SHIP. To give it a try before officially joining, consider participating in National Walk to School Day on October 5. 

Gina Dewink is a community-minded writer who literally high-fives her husband after surviving another day raising their precocious preschooler and fearless toddler.