I don’t read my local newspaper with too many expectations. Stories seem to sit on the extreme ends of a spectrum – either outrage and indignation (think local government planning decisions) or sugary sweet (remarkable escape and return of family pet from tree/stormwater drain/garbage truck). There must be a tried and tested formula because its been done this way for as long as I can recall, across the numerous suburbs I’ve called home. But they do come into their own sharing community information that isn’t going to make the headlines anywhere else. Case in point, I was flipping through the pages of a recent edition and came across a story from our local Council promoting an event I’d never heard of, Walk to School Month. As a parent of a Grade 2 and soon to be Prep, I thought I had my finger on the pulse regard the complete range of available events and activities for children, assisting me in either avoiding them at all costs or to donate my own children for experimentation.
Its a straight forward program, VicHealth encourages students to walk, scoot or ride to school throughout October to help them achieve their 60 minutes of physical exercise per day. As its 2015 there’s a website and an app, and competitions and prizes to engage and motivate the participation of the kids and parents, which say’s something fairly significant about our current relationship with the original method of human transportation. More interesting to me are the benefits associated with participation. Improved health outcomes are obvious, and with rising levels of obesity in the developed world, as opposed to the malnutrition prevalent in many developing countries, its a community and social issue we need to be right on top of. From a sustainability standpoint I was immediately hooked by the opportunity to take cars off the streets, the reduced congestion leading to easier and safer access to the school, and the associated reduction in air and noise pollution. Lastly, the potential to improve parent/child relationships is also promoted, a very different and unique dynamic being in play when you walk or ride alongside each other as opposed to the inherent distractions of driving.
At this point I should put up my hand and declare that we are serial walkers/riders to school. As a one-car-family it is partly born of necessity, but more influential is my own experience as a student. Going to school on the Northern Beaches of Sydney in the 1970’s and 80’s meant a return walk of 5km’s on my little legs with Mum, and when there was enough money and I was deemed responsible enough, I got a bike and was on my own. Eventually a bus option became available, but we were feral and frequently in trouble, and being driven to school was a rare and exotic treat. So riding (or walking when the bike was either intermittently broken, missing or stolen) was always the best option. It meant being responsible enough to be on your own and the personal freedom that entails, it meant meandering conversations with my group of friends as we collected each other along the way, it meant uncountable bike races, bike crashes, and the freewheeling glide down the hill from my house, before the long climb back up in the afternoon.
Its sounds idyllic but lets face it, life was different. There was more time, more space, less material things, less organised activities and lessons to improve and advance your children. I wanted my boys to experience a little bit of my own childhood, perhaps in meek response to them growing up as Victorians and AFL obsessives. We’re certainly not the only family that walks or rides to school, there are a number of die-hards who we regularly meet or pass on the way regardless of the weather or season, but the traffic congestion on the streets surrounding our school at drop off and pickup times is increasingly intense, a battlefield to find a parking spot while passing traffic builds up and makes increasingly hazardous attempts to squeeze past.
I might be lucky but my eldest son loves to ride his bike, picture Elliot in E.T., without E.T. in a basket on the handle bars.
It’s an extension of his body and his personality – always smiling, always contemplative, always finding a way to beat Dad at something. We take our time to and from school, we feel the heat, the cold, the wind, the rain, and make appropriate complaints and recriminations to the weather gods. We stop and temporarily supervise road works and trench digging, memorise the make of vehicles by their badges, check out for sale signs on houses and fight over who’d get the biggest bedroom, pick up sticks and run them along fences, or pinch flowers overhanging footpaths and growing on nature strips to bring home to Mum. Nothing very deep or consequential, just hanging out and watching the world go by together.
If anything is going to successfully motivate necessary change in the 21st century its going to be the inherent joy and happiness felt through experiences and activities like this. As a motivator for walking or riding to school, its good to know that its helping to keep us healthy, and my personal sense of superiority is enhanced by the environmental do-gooding but none of these are in themselves motivating enough to make it part of our every day lives. We’re too short sighted, too busy, too lazy, too easily distracted or led astray. We do it because it makes us happy, because it clears the head after a day of toil and gives some precious personal time with my children whilst they’re still young enough to think thats a good thing. We do it because in combination, factors like this make it the best option. Instilling the necessary attitudes and habits to ensure that many of todays challenges are stabilised, reduced and even eliminated in the future is best done at an early age. It worked for me.