The other day, when I was dropping off my son at his middle school, I noticed one of his friends. He was walking slowly from his mother’s car with his science project in his hand. He was already late. From his posture (head hung so low, I thought he was inspecting his shoes, and he looked so sad, like he was near tears), I could tell he was having one of those mornings. You know those mornings when everything seems to go wrong. From his look, he either forgot his science project and had to go back and get it…or he got into trouble for something else. Conceivably, from the looks of things, both of these may have occurred. All I could think to say to him was, “things will get better.” He smiled weakly in response as he passed through the school’s front doors. I wondered, in fact, what kind of school day he could have with such a lousy start.
Sitting in morning carpool and watching sleepy kid after sleepy kid trudge up the school’s walkway every morning, I am a little bit comforted, but mostly dismayed that the entire student population seems to be in the same foggy morning haze, as my own son- even on good days. I could just write it off as normal pre-adolescent behavior. But I’d like to think that there are ways to start off the day in a better, more alert state of mind.
A recent study indicates that there might be a not-so-obvious way to combat the morning foggies—walking or cycling to school. Danish researchers looked at connections between concentration, diet and exercise through a survey of 20,000 Danish children aged 5 through 19. And the findings surprised even them. Even though breakfast and lunch have an impact on concentration, the impact of exercise seems to trump diet by a long shot.
This research fits nicely into our discussions about getting our kids moving to combat obesity and the dangers of sedentary life. We know that when it comes to keeping our kids lean, diet is important. But diet cannot combat obesity alone.
We also know that exercise helps with managing stress. And increasingly our kids need coping tools for the stress in their lives.
But there is this other element involved with a kid making his own way to school. When my older brother and I rode our bikes to school, our trip was not just to the local public school down the street. Ours was a trek all the way across town. Some days it was cold. Sometimes there was heavy traffic. Some mornings I was tired. Some days my older brother was in a hurry and I had to keep up. For him, I was almost always too slow, but he had to deal with my pace because he was not allowed to leave me behind. My brother and I had to cope and adjust and figure it out. We were on our own—kids in the city. Even though our route was the same day after day, the trip was really never exactly the same. So by the time we arrived at school, I was fully awake, fully alert and ready to roll. No morning foggies here!
The Danish researchers do not know why kids are able to concentrate better after they’ve walked or biked to school. But Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark – the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, does. Dr. Ratey has not (to my knowledge) commented on the Danish research, but his book addresses the link between exercise and brain function. According to Dr. Ratey, neuroscience shows that there is a biological relationship between the body and the brain. He says that the human body is designed to move and that physical activity actually “cues the building blocks of learning” in the brain and as well as affects mood, anxiety, and attention.
So in measurable ways, exercise makes you smarter. But also, experience navigating the world on your own, even in small doses like from your neighborhood to your school, trains the brain for better functioning. A bike ride to school is the perfect combination of exercise and engagement that primes the brain for the day’s work ahead.
Encouraging your children to ride their bikes to school, then, seems like the right thing to do. But cycling to school is not without controversy. In fact, there are school districts that forbid it. The children in Saratoga Springs, New York, for example, must arrive to school by car even if they live within walking distance. School officials argue that cycling is too dangerous. A Michigan high school principal made the news last year by suspending a group of seniors who staged a bike-to-school event, because she said they put their lives at risk. This focus on the dangers is perhaps why kids’ cycling to school has greatly declined over the years. A Department of Transportation 2009 survey found that only 13% of all children biked to school, as compared to 48% in 1969.
The safety issue is no small matter, and has long been recognized as important enough to necessitate a federal program. The Federal Safe Routes to School Program (or SRTS), which was signed into law in August 2005, allotted a total of $612 million for 2005 to 2009. With legislative extensions, SRTS has apportioned nearly $1.15 billion to states as of September 30, 2012. The goal of the program is to improve safety on walking and bicycling routes to school and to encourage children and families to travel between home and school using these modes. Funds are distributed to states based on student enrollment. SRTS currently operates in 50 states.
The Federal Safe Routes to School Program’s 2009 report estimated that in 2008, 52,000 bicyclists were injured in motor vehicle crashes, and 21% of those bicyclists—nearly 11,000 children—were age 14 or younger. Children walking and bicycling to school represent 11% of injuries and fatalities during the school commute, but just 14% of trips and less than 2% of miles traveled. As alarming as all of this sounds, it is important to note that car crashes are still the leading cause of death for children ages 3 to 14.
My son’s school is located in a densely trafficked area. And in the morning and after-school, the drop-off/pick-up traffic around the school is scary all by itself. Still, since concentration is not his strong suit, the decision to park the car and let him cycle his way to school is compelling.
With some bike safety training (safteykids.org offers age appropriate safety tips) and careful planning for the safest routes, the benefits of cycling to school might be worth consideration. My son says he thinks he’d be fine with that. And I’m thinking he would.