Post Celtic tiger, walking to school might seem a nice alternative to being dropped at the gates daily in a gleaming 4×4. But apart from the obvious physical benefit of a bit of basic exercise, is there another advantage to making our children exercise their bodies? Apparently so. It also helps them exercise their brains.
A recent Dutch study of 20,000 children aged 5-19 proved that those who cycled or walked to school performed better on tests demanding concentration, the effects of which lasted up to four hours after they began the school day.
The study showed that the impact of early morning exercise was greater than the effect of diet – including a good breakfast. But more than the short-term impact of improved concentration, the research showed that the cumulative effect of walking or cycling to school was the equivalent to someone half a year further on in their studies.
According to the Department of Transport, over half of primary school children in Ireland live within 1km of school, with two out of three living within 2km.
Taking into consideration secondary schools, over half of all school children live no more than a 20-30-minute walk away (2km), while 80 per cent live within 5km which is only a short cycle away. Yet under 40 per cent of our schoolchildren walk or cycle to school.
While most of us know that walking or cycling can build a strong awareness of road safety, and reduce rush-hour congestion (hence making the roads safer in the first place), now there is even more reason to ditch the car and take to the footpath – walking helps them learn.
Yet the 2011 Census shows there has been a steady decline over the past 20 years in children walking or cycling to school. In 1986, over 250,000 primary school children walked, but in 2011 this had dropped to 118,523 (although this was the first increase since 1986, slightly up from 2006).
There has been a similar trend in cycling. Secondary school pupils showed no increase and there was a steady decline in both walking and cycling.
The National Transport Authority supports the travel mode of An Taisce’s Green Schools programme, whose aim is to encourage schools to promote sustainable commuting to and from school.
While this is mainly to deliver better results for our environment, this research may show it may also contribute to better results in the classroom.
By the end of 2011, 850 schools including 180,000 pupils had completed the travel mode.
The results for participating schools between 2008 and 2010 showed a 27 per cent decrease in car use and a 43 per cent increase in walking, with a 25 per cent increase in cycling.
The Green Schools campaign suggests that walking (or cycling) to school has multiple benefits including a better awareness of your community around you.
However, the Department of Transport’s website Smarter Travel Workplaces does provide suggestions for those parents who think they can’t incorporate a more active commute to school. These include walking your child to school and then getting the bus to work instead of driving. Or park ’n stride – driving part of the way, and walking the remainder.
But for those who really can’t manage a physical commute to school, the Danish research still showed that there is a deep connection between the way our body moves and the way our minds work.
“Teachers are very cognisant of the importance of getting children moving, especially transitioning between subjects. The Irish Primary curriculum is very busy, and now includes lots of ways of moving children around between activities.
“Thankfully school days are not as sedentary as they were years ago.”
Apparently even during our wettest months it only rains about 8 per cent of the time. In a land where most children live near their schools, walking is free, it’s fun and it’s a functional way to build exercise – and improved learning – into your child’s day.