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Posted August 17, 2009

Walking program gets students,
parents involved in physical activity

By Joseph Kenny
Catholic News Service

ST. LOUIS (CNS) -- Once upon a time, children walked to school and played outside.

The term "sedentary lifestyle" only applied to a few retirees in their rocking chairs, not children sitting in front of video games.

In the St. Louis Archdiocese, the Walking School Bus -- a group of children walking to school with one or more adults -- is an effort to get children and their parents active again.

Developed by the Partnership for a Walkable America and the U.S. Department of Transportation, the concept sprang from studies showing that fewer children are walking and biking to school and that more children are at risk of becoming overweight. Schools encourage formal and informal efforts with families taking turns walking children to school. Providing adult supervision is a way to reduce worries about safety.

Generally, the program works by having parents walk children to a designated "bus stop" where the children meet other students and trained adults to walk to school as a group, picking up children at other pedestrian stops along the way.

Three schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis introduced the concept on Earth Day in 2009.

Deborah DaLay, principal of St. Joan of Arc School, said one mother she knew had been driving children to school and then continued to walk with them the rest of the school year.

"The intention was to promote healthy living and be better stewards of the environment," DaLay told the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper.

The school plans to reintroduce the program at another event this fall.

The Walking School Bus promotes relationships among students and parents and is a better way to start the day, DaLay said. "Children are more willing to learn when they have had that exercise before they come to school. It helps them be alert and engaged."

A parent volunteers as a crossing guard. City neighborhoods with sidewalks, shady trees and schools within close proximity to residents provide a perfect setting for walking.

At St. Raphael the Archangel School, the program was successful in promoting health and fitness, said Margaret Kenny, principal.

She said the effort was led by a first-grade teacher who attended training with a gym teacher.

Participants were taught to be safe pedestrians at an Earth Day event and learned that walking with a trained leader promotes good health and a cleaner environment. The event included a prayer service.

Kenny said St. Raphael followed up with health segments at the school, exercises in the playground, an environmental cleanup in the park and other activities.

"It's a good way of getting acquainted with the community," she said. "And there's all kinds of education that comes into it. We hope that parents continue the program."

This year, she said, gym classes also may focus on bicycling, stressing safety.

Familiarity with walking to school has added benefits, she noted, with many families choosing to send their children to Bishop DuBourg High School, which is within walking distance of the neighborhood.

Funding for the Walking School Bus in the archdiocese comes from the Incarnate Word Foundation, a ministry of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.