Four generations ago, 8 year-old George Thomas was allowed to roam 10 km from his home in Sheffield England. In 2007, his 8 year-old great-grandson Edward could only go 300 m without being accompanied by an adult, often being driven.
The consequences of this loss of freedom? Increased obesity, behavioural problems, and learning challenges. Over the past decades parents have significantly reduced the amount of time that they’ll let their children be unsupervised; I know some 14 year-olds who aren’t allowed to take public transit on their own.
This trend is largely due to the media exaggerating the minuscule danger that children face from strangers. We are bombarded with stories of murders and abductions in news, tv, and the movies (Criminal Minds and the Taken movies are just two of many notable examples). These make compelling viewing, but don’t represent the actual risk that children face. It is natural for parents to react to this “information” by being overly protective of their children based on the constant message from police and others of “stranger danger”, although it is clear that most danger comes from family members and family friends. (Telling your child to pay attention to the “uh-oh feeling in their stomach” increases their safety more than the “never talk to strangers” rule.)
The convenience of driving and hectic life-styles also contribute to this trend.
A recent editorial in the Globe&Mail’s – calls for parents to reverse this trend by letting kids explore the world and gain independence by walking (or biking, skateboarding, or skipping) on their own to school, and by other means.
The City of Toronto, Toronto District School Board, the University of Toronto, Cycle Toronto, school boards across Ontario, and other organizations have made commitments to promote Active Student Transportation initiatives and policies. Using body power to get to and from school is good for learning, behaviour, and physical and mental health.
Having the local primary school within walking distance of children is another important part of active student transportation initiatives. Unfortunately the Province of Ontario keeps forcing school boards to sell schools, something that forces students into cars or school buses.
The short-term revenues generated by the sale of school land will be be more than offset by increased long-term costs to the Ministry of Health. For the sake of our children’s health, and our future tax rates, we need to keep a dense network of schools within walking distance of where children live.