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For those parents and caregivers, August is officially “back-to-school” time – that bittersweet time of year when it is time to buy school supplies, schedule haircuts (maybe) and think about what kids will need to succeed in the coming year. Though there are some comforts in returning to a familiar schedule, it is a change from the summer routine for everyone and, as everyone knows, change can be difficult.

Upcoming changes come in all shapes and sizes and a major change facing the younger generation is, of course, the climate. It may not always seem like the most immediate issue, given this era of urgent and difficult news, but it is one that begs back-to-schoolers to question some habits and consider making changes today.

Walking or bicycling to school, as an alternative to driving, is something to confront change; the planet is just one of the winners. Reducing local daily trips in cars can not only make a dent in climate change, it can improve lives in other ways – and help prepare kids for the future.

Improving Physical Health
Walking to and from school can promote cardiovascular and pulmonary health, reduce hypertension, reduce cholesterol and body fat and strengthen bones and joints. Plus, it helps energize kids for the day and can cut down on screen time.

Building Mental and Emotional Health
Getting outside, among trees that are generations old, can have a positive and humbling effect, especially for children. Contact with the natural world has been shown to reduce anxiety and even increase attention spans.

Reducing the Number of Cars Approaching Schools
Evanston’s narrow streets can be harrowing, especially near schools. Idling cars can create localized air pollution for the vulnerable population. Every car that does not approach the school drop-off zone makes the trip to school a little safer, a little easier and more enjoyable for the rest.

Fostering Independence
By walking and biking, children can become more independent and gain important decision-making skills. Most experts agree that by the time kids are 10, they can safely walk or ride a short distance to school on their own, with adequate preparation.
Of course, every child is different, but the decision-making ability is generally there. Parents may want to start with some back-ups in place, such as tapping other parents at school or along the route with a watchful eye. The Free Range parenting movement will tell you that children this age crave incremental independence, and from that, they will learn to make better decisions, adapt to new situations (and experience some minor failures) in a relatively-controlled setting.

Engage With Community
There is an incredible community benefit to more “eyes on the street” (thank you, Jane Jacobs), which describes the chance encounters with neighbors just by being out there. This happens plenty in Evanston, and it is an asset to share with children. Neighbors also create a safety net. The shared experience of walking provides a slow-paced environment that fosters conversation and allows mindful processing of the school day before and after.

Plan Ahead Tips for Making Walking and Riding to School a Habit
Talk about walking or biking before the first day of school. Talk about the reasons and benefits. With District 65’s relatively late start, it is generally feasible to allot 15-20 minutes for the trip to school, especially given the early hour that many young children wake. There are always surprises when trying to get out of the house with little ones, so allow plenty of time.  
Check the weather, find the necessary gear. Bad weather (within reason) can make the trip to school an adventure. Get a bicycle tune-up now. If riding is a preferred mode of transport, invest in a good bicycle pump and teach the kids how to use it.

Educate Yourself and Your Kids
Safety is the top concern for parents, so do some legwork. Plan a route from your house to school. Do a practice walk before school starts to see how long the trip is, and walk slowly. Look at the District’s Safe Routes maps to confirm the route choice. Locate a friend along the route to have additional peace-of-mind if a child is walking alone. Learn the locations of crossing guards.
Young bicycle riders may and should ride their bikes on the sidewalks – riding on sidewalks is illegal only in the downtown and other business districts.
Parents may accompany their kids on the sidewalk or ride nearby in the street. If kids are bicycling on sidewalks, consider a route with less pedestrian traffic. This may mean deviating slightly from the designated Safe Routes to School to avoid conflicts. But use the crossing guards – they help cyclists cross too.
Parents and children should take the Ride Illinois Bike Safety Quiz. Use the time while walking or biking to teach children about traffic safety Report unsafe conditions to the City’s 311 line and dangerous driving to the police.

Set Realistic Goals and Don’t Beat Yourself Up
Pick days of the week that you will have the best chance of keeping to the new habit. Everyone drops the ball or finds out at the last minute that the homework is not done or that today is snack day and has to scramble.
Consider parking a few blocks away from the school and walking the rest of the way even if you are running late – considering traffic congestion, you may get there quicker.
It also makes the get-away faster and keeps cars away from the intersections with the most kiddos crossing on foot.

Phone a Friend/Be a Friend
Few if any can walk or bike to school every day. Team up with a neighbor and learn their plans to get the kids to school on foot or on bike. Connecting with other parents in this way helps build community. When you know you can make the trip on foot, text your neighbors and offer to pick up their kids, especially if you know they have other little ones at home.

Game-ify the Walk or Ride
If only a gimmick will get the kids going, try incorporating a game into the trip. There are so many things to do or notice on a walk or ride – counting birds, for example, or butterflies, bunnies, trees and flowers. Track the steps or distance and, once the target is reached, the reward can be in a way that supports the value of the habit (a cool bicycle accessory, for example) or a special outdoor experience. Collecting leaves is a way to identify the species of trees and plants using fun apps (but not while walking). Bird identification apps are also cool and can help foster a scientific approach to learning.

Slowing down and simplifying daily trips will not only be a step towards a happier, healthier and more sustainable life, but will foster an appreciation of the environment we all need to defend. Kids are counting on us to lead the way.


Go Evanston: of Evanston Climate Action and Resilience Plan: Center for Safe Routes to Schools : Safe Routes to Schools Illinois Bike Safety Quiz