Children who walk to school ‘are ahead of the rest’

Tue, Apr 30, 2013, 06:00

Post Celtic tiger, walking to school might seem a nice alternative to being dropped at the gates daily in a gleaming 4x4. 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.

Road safety
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.

Vivienne Brady, from Dublin, walks her two daughters the 2km to school most days. “Apart from the obvious, that it’s kinder to the environment, we walk for the exercise and the fresh air, and it’s a form of exercise we can do together. We really enjoy it as it gives us time out to be together without distraction.”

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.

Vivienne Brady agrees. “When the girls were younger we would talk about the things we saw, the birds and flowers and I really believe that helped them cultivate an interest in nature and the local community. We see the same people walking to school every day and say hello and I think the girls and I enjoy a sense of familiarity and belonging in some way.”

More active
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.

Carmel Hume, principal of Presentation Primary school in Terenure, Dublin, agrees.

“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.”

That said, is there enough emphasis being put on giving children the chance to exercise their bodies and brains in the course of the school day?

Unlike other European countries such as France, which allow time in the school day to exercise as well as eat, the Irish system does not. The time allotted to running around the school yard is combined with eating lunch, and often one or both can suffer.

Cabin fever
Carmel Hume admits this can be a problem. “On rainy days when the children don’t get outside to run around, the teachers will tell you, by lunchtime everyone has cabin fever.

“The curriculum doesn’t give space for exercise outside of the one hour per week dedicated to PE and so giving opportunities for bursts of energy release are limited and combined with eating. But most schools will try to factor in as much movement as possible throughout the school day when they can.”

A study in the UK in 2011 showed that a mere 15-minute burst of exercise improved a child’s ability to concentrate during the course of the school day. In an experiment involving six schools carried out by researchers at the Universities of Aberdeen and Leeds, they discovered that those who underwent moderately intensive exercise (hopping, running on the spot) performed significantly better in tests that measured concentration than those who didn’t.

Dr Justin Williams, senior lecturer in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Aberdeen, who carried out the research, says, “As well as being important in tackling obesity and promoting a healthy lifestyle, it is clear that exercise can help with learning.”

Carmel Hume agrees: “Even if you’d never read any research, it’s an unnatural state for a child to be sitting all day. It’s important for schools to include as much movement – be it dance, music, drama, a short burst of jumping jacks, or a run round the school yard – throughout the day.”

Ditch the diesel
But for those who can, Walk to School week runs this year from May 13th-17th, when schools encourage their pupils to ditch the diesel and walk with initiatives such as Walk on Wednesdays and Feet First Fridays. And if it’s the weather that’s putting you off, be reassured.

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.