Today was National Walk to School Day. If you had told me before I lived out here that there was such a day, I would have laughed. I grew up walking to my local elementary school in Philadelphia from the time I was in kindergarten (and that was back in the 1970s when you could start Kindergarten when you were four!) until sixth grade, when I went off to a magnet school and had to take SEPTA.
A group of us, including older siblings, used to meet up every morning at the corner outside my house and walk the 5 blocks to school. On the way, we would talk, telling each other what dreams we had the night before and walk, or run to race to the next corner.
By the time we got to school, we had had our “morning meeting”. On the way home, we would stop at what was then The Pennsylvania School for the Deaf and swing on their swings and see how high we could get before we jumped off. Ahh, decompression. Several of those kids I walked with are friends of mine until this day.
Fast forward to 2012, when I have kids in three different schools in Lower Merion and all need to be bused. In fact, for high school, they are actually denied access to their only local, walkable school, Lower Merion. I tell my kids tales similar to the ones above and how it was in “the good old days” when I was a kid growing up in the city (then they started to question why we left the city and I said, “the schools,” the irony is not lost). I lament the loss of that time during the day for my children.
So today, some of us met at Linwood Park and carpooled from Ardmore to McClenaghan Mill and Manor Road in Penn Valley and meet up with lots of kids and parents and dogs walking from that neighborhood to Penn Valley Elementary.
It may seem odd to drive to walk, but it was a great experience for the kids and showed solidarity with our fellow Penn Valley classmates. They want more sidewalks over there, so they can walk what could be a short walk to school. People who live in Ardmore want to be able to use the almost complete network of sidewalks we have in South Ardmore to get to our local school.
This is what I saw today when I was walking with the kids, and this is just what I can explain in words, there is so much intangible about social experiences:
- Children learning that when you are walking on a road with no sidewalks, you walk against the traffic so you can see it coming.
- Children talking to each other about everything. School, walking, what they saw, just stuff (I wasn’t eavesdropping too much)
- Children and adults (those of us from Ardmore got a little confused on those twisty roads) learning how to navigate around their house and school. What the names of the streets are, who lives in that house, who supports Obama (lawn signs!), and where to cross the street to be safest.
- Children commenting on nature – a particularly large spider was an attraction.
- People getting exercise!
- Kids learning that cars don’t always slow down even when there is a large group of children walking, so it is on the pedestrian to be alert and aware.
- Using the streets as our space, too. If we don’t have sidewalks, people will use the street and we need to claim it.
- Parents talking to each other that don’t usually get a chance to.
- Community and neighborhood building!
As PV parent, Kris Prendergast wrote about the day, and most days that she walks with her daughter,
“As usual, Caroline and I enjoyed our solo walk down Righters Mill, and waved to the bus as it passed us by. The best part about today's walk was interesting road kill -- a snake who was flattened as if fossilized. She also liked the snail we paused to greet, and the horse chestnuts, and the neat fog wetting our hair like a bridal veil,
... I don't think people get that the benefit of walking isn't just for physical health, but for mental health too! We always find things to talk about that are much broader and world-aware than when standing on our drive waiting for the bus. It is quality time that I am SO fortunate to share with her. Even without sidewalks.”
In the end, the message to the School District, the Township, and people who live in LM, is that we want to be able to walk to school. We want access to the closest school to our house from elementary through high school. We actually want to make things simpler, not harder, or more complex, or more expensive.
We all realize that when we choose to move to certain neighborhoods there are trade-offs and there is no “perfect” place. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make where we do live better. It just means we need to understand the problems and figure out solutions. We are all in this together.