Monday, July 6, 2009

Safe Routes to School? Biking to school results in reprimand.

The Saratogian reports that in Saratoga Springs, NY, a mother and her son were reprimanded by school officials for biking to school in observance of national "Bike to Work Day."

Janette Kaddo Marino and her son, Adam, 12, wanted to participate in the commuting event, so the two set off to Maple Avenue Middle School on bicycles May 15. The two pedaled the 7 miles from their east side home, riding along a path that extends north from North Broadway straight onto school property.

After they arrived, mother and son were approached first by school security and then school administrators, who informed Marino that students are not permitted to ride their bikes to school.

The policy, according to the principal, stems from traffic safety concerns and an attempted child abduction in the district several years ago. From the comments, it sounds as if the traffic in the area presents legitimate challenges to developing a safe route to school for all students, but banning a student from riding with a parent infringes on parents' rights and transportation choices, and the article suggests there is at least one bicycle/pedestrian path crossing school grounds.

As the author and commentators note, automobile-dependency contributes to other very real safety concerns for children, including childhood obesity. These policies reinforce the perception that unsupervised children are at risk from predators and our streets are unsafe for alternative transportation. Moreover, such policies seek only to address the symptoms of these concerns. Creating livable cities - with real neighbors to keep the community safe - can provide a level of supervision that permits children to explore with minimal risk. Removing people from the streets does not make the streets safer; rather we should be discouraging automobile use, enforcing traffic laws, and educating drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians of their rights and responsibilities on the road.

And as for this active mother in Saratoga? "School officials took her son’s bike and stored it in the boiler room. They told her she would have to return with a car to retrieve the bike later in the day." We have a lot of work to do.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

No Child Left Inside

Sticking out of a pile of dead branches at Glenwood Children's Park is a hand-lettered sign: "These materials may be used in the park for forts and other structures."

Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times explores the movement started in part by Richard Louv's award-winning book: "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder."

Free play in nature is a vanishing pastime, even in nature-friendly Madison, says Sam Dennis, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dennis, a father of three who's involved with several local and university-led initiatives to get kids outdoors, pays attention to the ways children interact with their environment. And, like many educators, parents and health professionals, he doesn't like what he's hearing, reading and seeing.

"Nationally, we're finding that most kids spend their free time indoors. And when they are outside, very often they are tied up in some structured activity," Dennis says. "Madison is full of little parks and open spaces where kids could pile rocks, play with sticks, get muddy. Where are the kids? How do we connect them with these spaces where they can enjoy free-range play?"

Childhood obesity and diabetes, climate change, and dependence on foreign oil - these are all significant challenges. Giving our children opportunities for active, unstructured play where they can interact with nature (both in the urban landscape or out in county parks), become environmental stewards, and carve out a niche in the city for people can only help.