URBANA – Patty Bergan sometimes cringes at the thought of an administrator walking into her second-grade classroom at Wiley Elementary School when she's blasting music from "Mamma Mia" and having her students dance a conga line around the room. But those 7-year-olds can't sit still for too long without having a chance to move, she said.
"It makes a huge difference in their behavior," Bergan said.
Hearing Mark Fenton – a walking advocate, author, and program developer and instructor for the Safe Routes to Schools program – encouraged her that her instincts about what her students need are correct.
Fenton spoke to teachers in the Urbana school district recently during a teacher institute day. He said most children don't get the recommended amount of 300 minutes per week (or an hour a day, five days a week) of physical activity.
But there are ways for communities to help children put more physical activity into their days, to combat what he says is an "inactivity epidemic." And it can start with the schools.
Fenton said the Safe Routes to Schools Project (which sponsored his visit to Champaign-Urbana) is a good way to begin changing the culture of a school to one that encourages more physical activity.
"Build a world where a kid can walk and bike to school, and they can also walk to a friend's house, to a rec center, to the aquatic center," Fenton said.
And having a neighborhood where it is safe for children to walk also means it's safe for its elderly residents to walk as well.
Being physically active not only improves the health of children, Fenton said. Research shows it also improves their behavior in the classroom and their academic performance. And it helps eliminate traffic congestion around schools, lowers transportation costs, and improves air quality around schools, he said.
Schools should start with evaluating what is keeping more children from being active. How do most children get to school? What are parents' perceptions about letting kids walk to school?
In one example Fenton gave, most children from a particular neighborhood were being driven to school even though a bus picked up students in that neighborhood. The district discovered parents weren't putting their kids on the bus because the ride took twice as long as driving them to school themselves.
So the district shortened the bus route. Students had to walk a couple of blocks to get to a bus stop rather than being picked up right at home, but they got some exercise and a shorter bus ride to school, Fenton said.
In another area, a walking school bus – in which adults supervise a group of children walking to school – gradually evolved into students walking to school in groups without any adults. Neighbors got used to seeing the children and looked out for them, Fenton said.
But not every child lives within walking distance of a school. Opportunities for physical activity need to include kids who are driven or ride the bus too. Fenton said solutions include a before-school walking club, so students can walk together on the playground before their school day begins.
He suggested creating projects that combine physical education with math or English, such as using pedometers to measure the number of steps around the school grounds, then developing a math project or writing about the findings.
And infrastructure changes that encourage walking or biking can be relatively simple and inexpensive, such as painting in bike lanes and adding bike racks or a secure area where bikes won't be vandalized during the school day, Fenton said.