Healthier, happier families take a walk on the child's side

The daily school walk ... more important then we think.
The daily school walk ... more important then we think. 

Walking children to school gives them a chance to chat, daydream and let their thoughts tumble out.

At the start of the 20th century, a now-unknown American engineer named John Elfreth Watkins made predictions about life today. His predictions about slowing population growth, mobile phones and increasing height were uncannily close to the mark. But he was spectacularly wrong in one claim: that everybody would walk 10 miles (16 kilometres) a day.

Today, in Australia, most children on average fall 2000 steps short of the physical activity they need to avoid being overweight or obese, let alone Watkin's 16 kilometres daily. The mundane act of walking to school has steadily declined over the past few decades. In the early 1970s, 40 per cent of children walked, while in 2010, it has been suggested, it was as low as 15 per cent.

The decline is not because we have all become lazy. A coalition of familiar issues makes walking seem impossible: families are pressed for time, many with both parents working to pay the mortgage, often working hours not of their choosing, living in car-dependent neighbourhoods with limited public transport. The idea of adding walking to school into the mix is an added burden; the thing that can unsteady the already difficult balancing act of living. Fear of strangers and traffic can tip it over entirely.

The other side of the coin is equally a deprivation: for health and wellbeing, as well as lost opportunities for children to investigate and navigate their local surroundings. And for parents there are lost opportunities to walk and talk with their young scholar about their day.

First, the importance of physical exercise for children is well known. Research shows physically active children are at a reduced risk of experiencing chronic disease risk factors.

Walking as incidental exercise helps establish it as an unthought daily habit.

Second, regular exercise is also likely to aid children's mental and emotional wellbeing. The reasons why can seem abstract and distant for many parents but the effects are tangible and immediate, as regular walkers can attest.

Third, walking to and from school is unscheduled time for daydreaming, chatting, observing. For me, it is an invitation to hear about my son's inner life.


Most parents will have earnestly asked their child about their day, only to meet with a mumbled ''good'', quickly followed by ''I'm hungry''. This is also my experience. But somewhere over the daily walk more about my son's day tumbles out, prompted by association from the things we see. I hear him making sense of friendship and its limits - his moral code being constructed just as solidly as his cardboard and sticky-tape box constructions. This is the unexpected and rare parental opportunity to hear more. As we walk, the space for emotional support and empathy opens up.

For those with younger children, embracing walking might mean investigating family-friendly opportunities to trade overtime for a later start, for example. Some workplace cultures may see this as reflecting poorly on commitment. But in this they fail to recognise the vital importance of family health to employee satisfaction and productivity. It is certainly worth asking for a more flexible workplace for parents.

For those with older children, many primary schools and local councils support walking school-bus routes, with days of regular, parent-supervised walks. Doing just one of these a few times a week is better than nothing.

For those who have the option, or can create wiggle room, it's certainly worth trying. It can be tough to begin and takes a little planning - running shoes by the front door, lunches made the night before. The morning will still be hectic, but school mornings usually are.

There will be no frantic, five-minutes-to-nine rush, heavy on stress and light on conversation. There will be rainy days with umbrellas and gumboots, and hot ones with sunscreen and hats, but I'm looking forward to the early morning amble.

After a long summer of sleep-ins, reading in bed, toast and tea, we'll be back strolling, skipping, slogging. We will grumble, but we'll be healthier and perhaps a little happier for it.

Dr Ruth Quibell is a sociologist and writer.