Arlington Public Schools starts back to school today, September 8. It seems really late this year, a whole week into September, but I can’t imagine any of the students complaining! It’s been so hot these last few days that I have to laugh at fall back-to-school things – new sweaters and fall leaves and cozy hot drinks. My mother tells me that every year, my grandmother very carefully bought me a new raincoat, rain boots and umbrella, but California in the 1970s was in the middle of a drought, and I outgrew them before getting too much use out of them.
I had my parents send me my back-to-school photos. What a hoot! My style hasn’t changed much in decades – floral dresses and oh my goodness that oh so proper outfit on my first day of First Grade! And look – my natural hair color! <ahem>
And also, look at a few group photos of the first day – one with my little brother, and two with my friend at the time.
Back to school fashions are much different these days, but the excitement and anxiety remains for every kid returning to school. I’ve talked to many parents recently who plan on walking and biking with their kids to school (yay!), and some who plan to drive their child because they don’t want them up too early/the traffic around the school is terrible/drivers are terrible/it’s too hilly around our school. I think that is a shame, because they are not helping their children as much as they think they are.
We all read research about the positive impacts of children biking and walking to school and know how important it is to get kids moving to beat the obesity crisis. But much more compelling arguments to me are the mental benefits. An article in the print version of Momentum Magazine (sorry, I couldn’t find it online) quotes Dr. Anne-Marie Zajdlik, a Canadian physician, who talks about the rise in anxiety and depression in adolescents and young adults, and says that children need MORE freedom, independence and exercise. The article states that children who bike and walk to school “have the opportunity” to take “small risks” every day – these risks are important, because they help children develop “resiliency and self-confidence that can be drawn upon when facing life’s challenges in later years.” Basically, children who bike and walk to school develop not only better physical health, but better abilities to handle life’s challenges as they grow up.
Jenn Savedge, in her recent article in Mother Nature Network, laments that parents spend so much time and money on enrichment activities for their offspring, whereas letting them bike and walk to school has immediate, longer-lasting impacts. She talks about a 2012 Danish study that found that children who walk or bike to school not only have better concentration than their peers who rode public transportation or were dropped off by parents, but that the concentration lasts up to four hours! More striking – the effect was greater than even having breakfast and lunch. To me, the “small risks,” mental alertness and emotional maturity that come from risk taking are more important than even the physical health. Helping a child build his or her own mental resilience has got to be one of the most important things an adult can do. There has been an uptick in conversation about mental health lately, and how to spot mental illnesses earlier. Let’s focus instead on how to prevent or minimize mental illness by encouraging more activities that help children cope with challenges and struggles in their lives. Hovering over a child to prevent disappointment or a sense of failure isn’t healthy; helping her build the confidence to overcome them herself is.
Taking risks and building confidence is something that will not only follow us into adulthood, but something that we continually need to call upon. The Mechanic and I joined some friends mountain biking yesterday. It was only my second time out, and I was really skittish when we started out. But I stuck it out – and eventually gained some confidence. Yes, I still walked plenty of spots, but I took some risks – and succeeded.
As a society, we need to work together to encourage children to gain confidence and strength. I really can’t think of a better way than through biking and walking to school. We should all encourage the creation of cool skills parks like this one to help children develop skills safely. We should all encourage green streets and safe routes to schools. I don’t have children, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about my community and the children growing up in it. Their mental health and emotional resilience are important to all of us. So let’s all work together to create it.
And maybe buy your kids this great Showers Pass rain jacket (there are boys and girls version in a range of colors) to get them excited about biking in the rain. I would have loved one of these when I was a kid – even if I never got to wear it….
(A few more things I wanted to add but this was long enough: Dr. Jennifer Rupert mentions mental benefits of walking in nature; a great video about biking and walking to school in Portland.)