Dr Amy Whittaker’s oldest child recently started school for the first time. It’s been an exciting experience all round. One thing took Dr Whittaker by surprise and she began to wonder if there was a healthier and happier way to start the school day

Dr Amy Whittaker

Dr Amy Whittaker

I’ve recently returned to work after some time off with my second baby. As many parents know, returning to work after time off for a baby requires significant changes to family  routine and lifestyle.

 This time it was complicated by the fact that my older son was starting school for the first time.

 Experienced school parents will be familiar with the school routine, but as a new school parent I was pretty shocked by the drop off and pick up scenario. In fact there are whole blogs devoted to Productive things to do in the pick up line and 10 Ways To Survive the School Pick up line.

 While my son wakes up excited to be going to school – I have to admit I am less than enthusiastic about the time spend in traffic on the school run.

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Although the school is only 7.5km from my house, on the first day I spent two and half hours in the drop off and pick up process, with my 11-month-old baby in tow.

Apart from my heart sinking as I realised how much of my new “school mum” life would now be spent in pick up queues, I couldn’t help but think about the implications of so much time spent sitting in the car.

As we waited in the traffic, I thought about the more than a quarter of Australian children who were obese, the increase in sedentary behaviour and the impact on the environment. I thought about the effect on my own boys too, especially my 11 month old, trapped in the car seat for the duration.

According to a new Health Poll from The Children’s Hospital Melbourne I’m not the only parent sitting in traffic and wondering.

It turns out most children (58%) are driven most days of the week, while 22% take public transport and only 20% ride or walk. Almost three quarters of children never ride or walk to school in a typical week.

Being driven to school was by far the most common form of transport for both primary school children and teenagers, with most children not riding or walking to school at all during a typical week. Nearly a quarter of teenagers never travel to school without an adult.

The most common reason families cited for driving to school was that it was quicker, safer and more convenient with the family schedule.

Sometimes there is not an easy solution. My son’s school is too far away to walk (7.5km) and he is too young to travel independently.  According to the poll the average age for children to travel to school independently is 11 years old (with a range between 9-13).

The report points to a range of benefits for the child from active (walking or riding) and independent travel including improved physical health and fitness, mental health, building motor, spatial and practical coping skills as well as fostering independence and responsibility.

It also highlights benefits to the broader community including increased social interactions, a sense of connection to the local community as well as reduced congestion and pollution.

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Given the potential benefits of active transport what can we do to make this part of our lives and feel ok about leaving our children to go it alone when the media is so often filled with stories that understandably leave parents feeling afraid?

  • Discuss with our children how they would like to get to school.  Children often enjoy riding their bike, scooter or skateboard - then try and find ways to make it happen at least once a week. Accompany them if necessary.

  • Drive if necessary but consider stopping part of the way and walking the rest.

  • Use active transport to get to a friend’s house and then share the driving or car pool with other parents.

  • Use active transport to get to the bus/tram or train stop.

  • Teach and practice road safety and stranger danger from an early age.

  • Plan and practice the safest route to school.

  • Walk or ride with friends

  • Develop a contingency plan – mobile phones can be important if they are old enough to travel independently.

  • Remember the reality is it is actually much safer to travel to school independently now than when we were children!

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 So what have we done? Well, the chaos of the first couple of weeks has eased a little and we have developed a routine of arriving early to have a play in the playground prior to going into the classroom.

While this doesn’t reduce the environmental impact of our journey it does give the opportunity for both boys to be active before either getting back in the car or starting the school day. 

 At pickup I plan to park further away and walk to the classroom.

 If my husband and I are home in the evenings one of us will take my son for a walk after dinner which he thoroughly enjoys and provides a nice opportunity for discussing his day. As he gets older we will certainly prepare him for independent and active travel.

 You may find the following resources useful:

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