Education and the built environment: How walking and biking to school helps students learn better

Growing up, I was fortunate to live close enough to my elementary school in Stockton that I could walk or bike everyday. Once I was old enough, I made the daily half-mile trek from my home near Kelly Drive, over Mosher Slough to Wagner Holt. Today, a half mile is nothing, but back then, it seemed like the longest bike ride ever. But according to new research, this daily pilgrimage to and from elementary school not only spared my family the trouble of shuttling me to school everyday, it may have helped me become a better student.

Research shows a link between walking or biking to school and the ability to concentrate.

Research shows a link between walking or biking to school and the ability to concentrate.

New evidence has emerged linking school performance to walking and biking to school, suggesting that a little physical activity in the morning can help a student concentrate better in class. In a society where families pay thousands of dollars for test prep courses and tutors, it turns out something as simple as walking with your kid to school can have a profound effect on their ability to learn.

Researchers in Denmark late last year found that students who biked or walked to school were able to concentrate at higher levels than their counterparts who were driven in cars (I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of the actual study, so I don’t have any hard data. Though one of the report’s authors claims that the third graders who biked or walked to school exhibited concentration levels about half a year ahead of their grade level.) The study’s authors were originally more interested in the effects of eating breakfast and lunch on the ability to concentrate, but were surprised when the data actually pointed to physical activity as the biggest indicator. Nearly 20,000 Danish students ages five to 19 were included in the study, making these findings fairly robust.

While there has been plenty of research linking exercise to higher test scores, this is the first study I have found showing the positive effects of getting that physical exertion from walking or biking to school. These new findings indicate that performing better in class may be as easy as walking or biking with your kids to school more often.

There is already evidence linking physical activities to improved test scores.

There is already evidence linking physical activities to improved test scores.

These results may also help explain another, simpler analysis of the locations of high performing schools in Washington, DC. Using data from Walkscore, an area writer found that the city’s highest performing public schools appear to cluster around areas of high walkability (the same analysis on charter schools did not show as strong a correlation, though small sample size may play a factor). While we have to remember that correlation does not equal causation– this analysis does not control for variables such as income, race, etc– this interesting bit of info seems to lend credence to the results of the Danish study showing the link between physical exercise and concentration.

Sadly, as streets and neighborhoods are increasingly built around the car at the expense of the pedestrian, walking and biking to school has become less inviting, with some schools around the country forbidding it entirely. As suburban growth has proliferated over the past 60 years, more and more kids must rely on buses or cars to get to class. In 1969, over 50 percent of school age children walked or biked to school. Today, only 13 percent do so, while 60 percent of students arrive by private automobile.

The way we build our communities may have more of an impact on our children’s ability to succeed in the classroom than previously thought. I have pointed out before that a car-dependent childhood can hinder a child’s ability to remember aspects about their surroundings, and even foster negative emotions towards their communities. Now we have evidence that learning can also be impaired by a reliance on the automobile to get to class.

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Categories: Community Commentary, Transportation

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia founded SCL in March of 2012. He holds degrees from UCLA as well as Johns Hopkins University and currently works as the Chief Operating Officer at Ten Space in Downtown Stockton, and previously worked as a researcher/analyst for a congressional agency in Washington DC. The views expressed here are solely of the author.

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