Car Time to School Keeps Kids from Concentrating

In 1978, two years before ADHD became a clinical diagnosis, Dr. W. Mark Shipman sent a group of “hyperactive” kids out running.  It wasn’t just for fun; he was testing a hypothesis he had regarding the effects of exercise on the brain. His discovery?  That hyperactive kids who ran regularly – up to forty-five minutes four times a week – needed less medication than the control group to mange their hyperactivity.

You may not be surprised – what parent hasn’t booted their wall-climbing progeny out of the house to have them run off some of that crazy-making steam? And yet…

The stuff of life.
The stuff of life.

Every day, twice a day, we get in the car and drive CJ to school. Fifteen minutes each way, for a total of an hour on the road each and every weekday for that activity alone. (Except for when we have snow days. Oh, the incessant snow days!)

It was a conscious choice we made. We hope to move closer to her school, but until then… we drive. A lot.

We’re certainly not alone. Every year, traffic congestion jumps in September as we parents resume driving our kids to school. By some estimates, parents driving their children to school make up a full 25% of traffic during drop-off and pick-up times!

All this driving takes a toll on kids (and not just kids – more on that another time), and as a country I don’t know that we’re counting the cost very well. We talked a few weeks ago about how kids who get around primarily by car have poorer cognitive mapping skills and remember fewer details from their environment than kids who get around on foot.

Now there’s a study out from Denmark which shows that kids who walk or bike to school have a significantly improved ability to concentrate compared to their more sedentary peers (in this case meaning kids who got to school by car or bus). Exercise improved kids’ concentration for up to four hours after they got to school and increased their ability to concentrate the same amount as an entire half-year of age. While the project “set out to examine the link between diet, exercise and the power of concentration” the researchers were actually expecting to further define the importance of regular eating habits for kids’ ability to concentrate. It was a surprise to them to discover that the effect of getting to school in an active way far outweighed the effect of eating breakfast.

So, good to know. Now, why did I say that new schools keep kids from concentrating?

This is a typical example of new school construction in an elementary school which opened this past fall.
Typical new school construction. The school just opened this past fall.

Simple. Think about a school that has been built recently near you. Chances are good that it looks something like the photo above, which is a newly-constructed school near me. It’s located on a large piece of land, fronted by a parking lot, and kind of out in the middle of nowhere. I don’t feature this school to pick on them; I assume it was commissioned by caring parents and strong administrators who want the best for the children who will be learning there. It’s a beautiful building. But it’s very typical of new school construction in that the kids who go there are going to arrive on our bottoms, unable to take advantage of the cognitive benefits of arriving on their feet.

Hm. It’s something of a pickle we’ve gotten ourselves into, isn’t it?

This is the first installment of what I expect to be a three-part series that I plan to have appear over the next couple Thursdays (barring excessive snow days and other unpredictable events).

Several days after I published this, The Atlantic Cities ran a story worth reading called “The End of the Neighborhood School”. It’s worth a read.

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