Daily Dispatches
Children take the walking school bus in Providence, R.I.
Associated Press/Photo by Steven Senne
Children take the walking school bus in Providence, R.I.

Can walking school buses solve the childhood obesity problem?

Health

Walking school buses are the latest trend in fighting childhood obesity for children who live less than a mile from school. Instead of the familiar large yellow vehicle, a walking school bus includes two adult chaperones, a “driver” and a “conductor,” who pick up and lead a group of children on a safe stroll to and from school each day.

Rosanyily Laurenz, 10, signed up for the Providence, R.I., walking school bus this school year. “I get to walk with my friends,” she said. “Plus, I get snacks.”

Robert Johnson, of the Missouri-based PedNet Coalition, said the programs’ success reflects a growing interest in getting kids more active. “Every parent is looking for ways to make their child a little healthier, and walking to school is one,” he said on the group’s website.

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Pilot programs from Rhode Island to Arkansas are gaining traction in both urban and rural settings.

In addition to the exercise, the walking buses offer other, more subtle benefits, said Allyson Trenteseau, the manager for Providence’s program. On the walks, she sees relationships grow and conflicts get resolved. And she can intervene when there are problems. During the winter, one of the walk leaders observed some of the children wearing only house shoes, so she bought them all boots.

In the rural Ozark Mountain town of Green Mountain, Ark., Ron Kerby champions the walking school bus program.“One of our greatest challenges is instilling in kids’ minds that walking to school is cool,” Kerby said in a statement. “We’re working on ideas, such as getting the high school football quarterback next fall to keep track of his mileage—as well as the high school cross-country team and the captain of the high school soccer team. If we can create a little competition among the high schoolers, it will definitely trickle down to the 10th graders, eighth graders, the fourth graders, and the whole school.”

Funding is often provided by the federal Safe Routes to School program, which pays for infrastructure improvements, like sidewalks and crosswalks, and initiatives to enable children to walk and bike to school. School districts often end up saving money by decreasing their traditional school bus expenditures.

Even so, some programs don’t make it. Elementary schools in Columbia, Mo., were among the first in the nation to have walking school buses. Started in 2003, the program grew to 450 children, 13 schools, and about 200 volunteers. Administrators canceled it this year because of funding issues.

But as a whole, there is a measurably positive national trend. According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, the number of  children in elementary and middle schools who walk to school has increased by about 6 percent since 2007.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mark Russell
Mark Russell

Mark is a freelance writer and practicing physician living in Hot Springs, Arkansas with the love of his life who also happens to be his wife of 39 years. Follow Mark on Twitter @msrmd.

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