COLUMBIA-The crunch of leaves beneath their feet was muffled by the children’s voices as they paraded to school, carrying signs to let drivers know that Wednesday was International Walk to School day here at Swansfield Elementary – and around the world as well.
“Walk don’t pollute,” read one of the hand-made signs. “Be cool, walk to school,” said another.
Swansfield was one of 50 schools in Maryland that took part in the ninth annual event, and the school’s 500 students were among an estimated 3 million people who walked to their schools in more than 35 countries on six continents.
Shannon Toole and his children, fifth-grader Gideon and third-grader Mary Kate, were joined by others in their neighborhood for the trek to Swansfield. The Toole family dog, a German shepherd mix named Madison, joined the family, wagging his tail in delight.
Walk to school day, which began in the United Kingdom, is designed to promote safety for kids walking to school and the necessity of physical activity in children’s lives.
Although the Toole children and their friends looked forward to the walk, some students weren’t as excited.
“Do we have to walk back after school?” whined Sara Moyers, a fifth-grader who said she usually takes the bus. “My mom forced me to walk to school today,” Sara said. However, she did concede that the walk was fun, although she was hot on the overcast fall day.
Most American kids don’t walk to school even once a week, according Center for Disease Control study released last month. Distance was the No. 1 reason parents gave for why they don’t let their kids walk to school.
Toole said most Swansfield students live within 2 miles of the school.
However, on an average day, “we have 100 to 150 parents dropping off their kids each morning,” said Toole’s wife, Jennifer, the Parent Teacher Association member who organized the walk to school day at Swansfield. Wednesday’s drop off rate was smaller, as many students walked to school.
Jennifer Toole said students’ safety in the traffic is an issue for the school and part of the reason the PTA organized the event.
According to statistics from Safe Kids Worldwide, about 650 school-aged pedestrians die each year in traffic accidents in the United States and another 43,000 are injured.
On Wednesday, Safe Kids released a ranking of the most dangerous metropolitan areas for children to walk. The greater Baltimore – Washington area ranked 31 out of 47 areas with populations of at least 1 million.
In Columbia, Swansfield is on a main road, Cedar Lane. The bustling street can be a bit intimidating to some students.
“One time I was walking to school and an ambulance was right there,” said third-grader Matthew Sachs, indicating that the large, loud vehicle was feet from where he was walking. Sachs, who usually bikes or rides the bus to get to school, said, “That was scary.”
Although no students have been injured in traffic accidents near Swansfield in the last few years, Jennifer Toole said, “It’s something we’re always concerned about.”
However, the school’s main focus is on fitness, she said. The walk to school day was a kick-off for a continuing program at the school called Walking Wednesdays.
Kids at Swansfield will be encouraged to walk laps during Wednesday recess, said PTA member Kathy Eckley. “The goal is to get them moving during recess, to not just play kickball or stand around talking to friends.”
Prizes will be awarded to the classes with the highest participation rates, and students can earn individual prizes for every 5 miles they walk, Eckley said. Students who walked to school at Swansfield were rewarded with stickers and neon backpack zipper pulls. Donated by Safe Kids, the reflective tags allow drivers to see kids more easily as they walk to and from school.