Step by Step

What the Heck Is a Walking School Bus?

One local researcher revives a bygone practice—the stroll to school.

By Lily Hansen November 26, 2019 Published in the December 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Mike Holm

In 2009, Dr. Jason A. Mendoza had a question: How do we get our kids moving again? The pediatrician and his team from Seattle Children’s Research Institute conducted a pilot study to determine whether a Walking School Bus would encourage more physical activity among fourth graders at low-income elementary schools in Houston. The concept is just what it sounds like—adult volunteers escort students on foot every morning and afternoon, along specific routes. Results were telling. Children who participated in the program not only got more exercise, but remained significantly more active throughout the day.

Soon after Mendoza published the results, he applied for a National Cancer Institute grant to take his research a step further: Okay, walking to school gets kids moving more. But does it improve their long-term health? In 2013, Mendoza began a five-year study seeking an answer. Elementary-age children from historically disadvantaged communities in Seattle, Federal Way, and Houston ambled to class day after day, and Mendoza measured activity with accelerometers, tracked BMI, and assessed children’s attitudes toward walking. The study is currently in the analysis phase, but Mendoza seems optimistic.

Fifty years ago, nearly half of American children got to class by foot or by bike. Today, kids are struggling to reach even one hour of moderate exercise a day. “If I can get kids excited about walking to school again,” Mendoza says, “then I’m doing my job.”

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