herald

Monday 11 December 2017

Mum's the word: A free school bus? Just take a little walk this way, please

Every neighbourhood would benefit from a walking bus

The wheels on the bus may go round and round in most places in the world, but I was astonished to find another kind of bus in my neighbourhood last week.

While driving to drop off my kids at their respective Montessori and school, I passed a large group of children and several parents walking in a pack out of my estate.

Assuming it was coincidence that everyone ended up walking at the same time I spotted another group the next day strolling down Griffith Avenue. There looked to be about 30 people together, mostly children accompanied by a handful of adults.

I forgot all about the unusual sighting until I met a neighbour who told me she was returning from duty as the 'driver' of the new school walking bus that morning.

Yes, apparently a walking bus is a thing. Conceived in Australia in 1992, it encourages children to walk to school in a group, while working to take congestion off the roads. Much like a school bus it has designated routes and departure times, and some will even have collection points on their route.

My local girls' school has initiated the practice for three weeks to earn an active flag for their school, with three walking buses departing from different neighbourhoods, all chaperoned by parents. Traditionally a parent 'drives' at the front and a 'conductor' follows at the back to watch over everyone and keep them safe.

Other parents are welcome to join in, with higher numbers required if the children are younger, and the chaperoning is worked out on a rota system. The word on the street is that the idea is so popular my neighbourhood is considering continuing the initiative after the flag is won.

With the HSE recommending that children get a minimum of 60 minutes of physical exercise a day, a one or two-kilometre walk to school is ideal, taking up to 25 minutes, walked at a moderate pace. It's a great way to get lazier kids moving, especially those who shy away from traditional sports and extra curricular activities. Morning exercise is proven to stimulate the brain, which means teachers are benefiting too, with classrooms filled with bright-eyed and bushy-tailed pupils from the minute the bell rings.

As well as tackling the very real threat of childhood obesity, walking buses enable children to pick up important road safety skills and develop a new sense of independence.

Working with other parents builds a strong network of support, which can prove useful if a parent is sick or finds themselves in personal difficulty.

Knowing and trusting your neighbours not only brings support, but it has been proven to make a neighbourhood more secure. It also shows our children the importance of cooperation and how much fun can be had from team work.

Respect for the environment is also highlighted through walking buses, with school kids learning about the negative impact of pollution, and the need to explore alternative modes of travelling, especially over shorter distances.

Of course, it's not just the kids who see these benefits: parents who still need to drop off at school in the mornings will find less traffic and more parking spaces, which should shorten their drop-off time and lessen peak time congestion in the neighbourhood.

I'm guilty of living less than two kilometres from our school and driving. My daughter attends Montessori in the opposite direction, making a walk impossibly long in the mornings. Come September, I'd be delighted to hop on board and sign up to the chaperone's roster.

Walking buses are popular in many countries, getting children to school in a safe and healthy fashion. Wouldn't it be great to see these buses departing from everyone's neighbourhood some day soon?

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