Children who make their own way to school are happier, healthier and better adjusted.
Those are the initial findings of a study being undertaken by Dr Matthew Burke of Griffith University’s Urban Research Program. There is also evidence that, through increased physical activity, they may also do better academically.
Despite this the vast majority of children in Australia are driven to school, even when the neighbourhood is ideal for walking and cycling.
“We are looking at how children travel to school, and the barriers and facilitators to their travelling independently, either by walking, taking their bike or public transport,” Dr Burke said.
“The data collection process has taken more than a year and during that time we have been to schools in Rockhampton, Brisbane, Ipswich, Melbourne and Perth.”
Each child was equipped with a GPS, and a heart rate monitor. Families were also surveyed about the gradual process by which the children gained increased freedom to move around without adult supervision.
“We gave the children a camera too, so they could capture their environment as they made their way to school,” Dr Burke said.
“We wanted to know what they liked and what they didn’t like and what would help them walk or cycle more often.”
Over the past 50 years there has been a progressive loss of the modest freedoms children traditionally enjoyed from about the age of eight to ten, such as walking down the street to a friend’s house or going to school unsupervised.
“In the 1960’s, around three quarters of Australian children went to school independently. Now it is only around 25% and childhood obesity is just one of the problems accompanying that shift.”
Dr Burke says reversing the trend would not only be better only for our children, but also the broader community.
“You know when it is the school holidays by the lovely change in traffic.
“As much as 30% of traffic congestion on our roads is associated with school pick up and drop off times and that creates an enormous problem in trying to keep everyone safe.”
But change won’t be easy.
“One of the problems is that we have built environments, particularly in our outer suburbs, which are no longer conducive to kids moving around independently.
“And there are particular problems in Brisbane. We have some of the least shade cover of any capital city in Australia, and fewer footpaths in our middle suburbs.
“We also have a social environment in which we think we are doing the best thing by a child by driving them to school.
“We need to challenge those assumptions and give children more opportunity to travel without adult supervision.”