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Danish Finding: Biking or Walking to School Increases Concentration

Biking to School

Children in San Francisco biking to school. Photo by SF Bike Coalition.

As I continue to rant regularly about poor school location, poor school design choices, and ridiculous NIMFY shoot-downs of easy school access remediations, in comes a study from Denmark that shows that children who walk or bike to school performed measurably better on tasks demanding concentration. You know, like reading and math and the like.

Study after study is adding to a literature that shows that how we get around has as much impact on a child’s brain (and our own) as our destinations. It’s not enough to be going to school or work, but the means by which we navigate our surroundings impacts our ability to produce once at our destination. The Danish study showed that how a child got to school had a greater correlation to concentration than even a healthy breakfast.

Parents drive kids to schools and participate in the high-emission car line for multiple reasons:

  • Unreasonable fear of kidnapping — Stranger danger accounts for less than 100 child disappearances each year, and can largely be addressed via walking school buses and kid posses. However, in some places, schools bus kids less than 4 blocks.
  • Fear of traffic — This fear can be variably overwrought, and absolutely justified. The elementary school my own children are to attend is nearly impossible for a kindergartener to access safely, as from nearly all housing nearby (let alone outside of a quarter mile) children must cross 5 lane highways with 45-55 mph speed limits, and no crosswalks/traffic lights/medians to facilitate the process for little legs. In other cases, parents freak out over 4 lanes, sidewalks, and crosswalks.
  • Perceived convenience — This article from the UK justifies the choice to drive, as it takes only 5 minutes where walking would take 15 minutes. The attitude is not unique to the UK. The idea that driving is “faster and easier,” even for very short trips, is epidemic. I’ve talked about how much traffic would be calmed (and how much money would be saved) by if 20% of the trips under 2 miles were undertaken by bicycle or foot. Yet, it doesn’t happen — in part because of traffic fear, but also due to convenience beliefs.
  • Fear of cold — All right, sometimes it is really too cold for kids. I get that. But kids are pretty durable. Wrap them up good and let them go, so long as it’s not below 0, windy, blowing snow, low viz.

Parents, especially suburban parents, fall all over themselves to provide their children advantages — early preschool, immersion languages, sport participation, tutors, the right and most fashionable shoes. The Atlantic asks if perhaps studies like this Danish study will cause said parents to clamor for more contextual, walkable schools — that they then will allow their darlings to walk to. It’s a nice idea, but so long as people are hung up on kidnappings (and remain convinced that doing airport security shoe removal prevents terrah), I have my doubts.

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Author: julie

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005. She is a past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association. She has 2 children and 4 bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations.

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