Drive by any elementary school during morning drop-off time and you're likely to find yourself weaving around cars queued up. But some parents will try to lighten traffic a bit today as Jackson County students join millions of kids across the globe in International Walk + Bike to School Day.
Almost 250 Oregon schools signed up for Wednesday's event, which is designed to encourage exercise, improve the environment and promote community connection, according to data from the Oregon Safe Routes to School organization.
For more information about International Walk + Bike to School Day, see walknbike.org.
Jenna Stanke, bicycle and pedestrian program manager for Jackson County Roads and Parks, helped sign up Hoover Elementary School for the annual event. Stanke stresses she isn't operating in her official capacity for the county. She's just a big believer in the positive effects of hoofing it to school.
Stanke and her husband walk his two children to Hoover along a mile route most mornings. Their daily non-vehicle commute provides both exercise and opportunities to connect in today's busy world, she said.
"The kids really like it. They sort of expect it," Stanke said.
Not only do the kids benefit from walking, so do teachers, she said.
Results of a recent study in Denmark looked at nearly 20,000 students between the ages of 5 and 19, Stanke said. Youth who walked or biked to school scored better on tasks demanding concentration, she said.
"It turns out it was a better indicator of the ability to concentrate than eating breakfast," Stanke said, adding the effects lasted for up to four hours after they got to school.
Roosevelt parent Michelle Wilson said her son walks or bikes or scooters to his school, which is just two blocks away. Wilson's son is in third grade, and they have been walking together since he was in kindergarten.
"It's a way for us to get centered and connect and then go on about our day," Wilson said.
Every student at Roosevelt lives within a mile of the school, and walking becomes a part of the neighborhood, she said.
"This is what I've always wanted for him — a true neighborhood school on a tree-lined street," Wilson said.
Thirty years ago about 50 percent of students walked to school. Now only about 15 percent make the daily trek. So what has changed?
Stanke and Wilson said barriers include parents who worry about "stranger danger."
"I would imagine parents have concerns about safety," Wilson said. "That feels very sad to me."
Wilson and her son started out walking to school hand-in-hand when he was in kindergarten. As the years progressed, she began allowing him to walk with friends, and eventually to ride his bike or scooter, she said. The opportunity for her son to learn a growing level of responsibility and independence is something she encourages, Wilson said.
Other parents may have traffic concerns, Stanke said.
"We walk with the kids because they have to cross Barnett (Avenue)," Stanke said.
If more parents would join or allow their children to walk to school each day, not only would they reap the health benefits of daily exercise, the environment and the community would gain, she added.
Twenty to 30 percent of morning traffic is from parents driving their kids to school. The scene on the streets can be pretty chaotic, with parents rushing to get their kids to school — and themselves to work — on time, Stanke said.
"But if we can get parents to get their kids walking, we can cut down on the congestion and the associated pollution," she said.
Jackson, Orchard Hill, Lone Pine and Hoover elementary schools in Medford, along with Willow Wind Community Learning Center and Helman Elementary in Ashland and Phoenix Elementary are participating in today's walking awareness campaign, according to the Oregon Safe Routes to School website.
At Jackson Elementary, about 175 students will walk and roll to school today with parents, teachers and community leaders, including members of Medford Fire-Rescue and the Medford Police Department, according to a news release from Medford Fire-Rescue.
The walkers planned to leave from the McLoughlin Middle School parking lot and the Santo Community Center parking lot at 7 a.m. and arrive at the school about 7:30 a.m. A light breakfast and a few giveaways were planned for participants.
Creating permanent, safe and well designed walking routes increases driver awareness and improves safety, Stanke said. She hopes more will continue to "shift the paradigm" back to the walking way.
Wilson agrees, adding her walkable neighborhood helps community connection and keeps the blood pumping.
"It's a great way to start the day with a little bit of exercise and fresh air," Wilson said. "We wave to everybody."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org.