Remember walking to school? You may be in the minority. Today, fewer than two out of ten students walk or bike to school. The rest arrive by bus and most get there in a private vehicle. More cars and buses mean more traffic congestion and poorer air quality around our schools. Who loses out? Kids. The Centers for Disease Control suggest children need sixty minutes of physical activity each day. Evidence shows that sedentary children are at greater risk for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Walking and biking is great exercise and boosts mental health while helping them gain independence and confidence.
Letting your child set out on his or her own can be scary, but raising a safe pedestrian or biker is a win for everyone! Children get the benefits of the activity while their parents can reduce hours of chauffeuring and their anxiety levels while their kids are out.
Getting there, however, takes years of careful instruction. From the moment that toddler is mobile, begin with the basic lessons. Walking with your children is a great way to get quiet time together and the perfect opportunity to help them learn about their neighborhood and teach them about traffic signs, directions, and crossing streets. Remember, they are watching what you do, so obey the crosswalk signs.
Bike together! Show them that you obey the stop signs and other traffic rules. Ride with the traffic and use your hand signals when turning or stopping. Wear your helmet and they will wear theirs. Make sure they ride an age-appropriate bike! Borrowing a sibling’s or friend’s bike may be tempting, but they won’t be able to control a bike that’s too large or heavy. Need to brush up on your own bike safety knowledge? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a printable guide for you that reviews road rules and bike maintenance for safe riding.
Teach your kids to be on the defense. Pedestrians and bikers of all ages often believe that drivers are paying attention, while most are really only concerned about other vehicles. Teach your kids to assume drivers don’t see them. Insist on bright clothing and reflective patches after twilight.
Encourage kids to be especially alert for cars turning or backing up. Every vehicle has a blind zone; the bigger the SUV, van, or truck, the bigger the blind zone. Back up cameras can’t see items beneath the tires and to the sides. They can’t rely on a driver to check his mirrors while watching that camera.
Don’t be a distracted walker or biker. Tell them to put the phone down and lower the volume on the buds when crossing the street. In bad weather, they especially need to be able to hear what’s happening around them when there’s a danger of skidding cars or falling branches. Rain and snow also lead to possible flooding and road conditions that make walking or biking dangerous. Let them know that it’s okay to ask for a ride!
Some communities ban bikes from sidewalks for riders as young as ten, no matter how busy the streets are. Not every state requires a helmet when riding. Parents have to enforce their own rules for bike safety, no matter what ‘the other kids do.’ You decide when and where they ride. You set the household helmet rules.
When can they walk alone? No law sets a minimum age; you decide when your child is old enough to walk alone. Every child is different, but generally most kids can‘t judge the speed and distance of oncoming traffic until age ten. Consider your child’s maturity, sense of direction and comfort level. Balance the distance and the road conditions. Does your kid automatically look left, right, and left again before crossing the street? Do they know to walk facing traffic in rural areas or neighborhoods without sidewalks? You and your child will know when it’s time.
Walking and biking can put your child up on the road for a lifetime of healthier habits – active kids grow up to be active adults. Teach your kids how to enjoy it safely today!