We seldom think about it, but the great majority of children and young people live in cities, where the urban environment offers them many and varied possibilities of personal evolution, and where 15-20% of movements are made by young people. Too bad that our cities are often conceived without regard to children and young people. Public spaces and means of transportation – designed by adults in good physical shape for their equals – neglect the needs of children and other “minorities”. The autonomy of children is threatened, with a negative impact on their capacity for development and their welfare.
Children and young people develop habits that generally persist into their adulthood: they are “accustomed” to move on their parents car, in an environment where the car is considered the only way to move. So these citizens of tomorrow will tend to “naturally” take the car as reference. In this regard, a survey carried out by the city of York, in England, including 15,500 school children (66% of the school population), is revealing. Among elementary school students, 34% are taken to school by car, but barely 15% appreciate this way of transport, 40% would like to go to school by bicycle, although only 3% actually do. In secondary education, 15% of the students are accompanied by car. But the attitudes of these young people are close to adult preferences in terms of ease and comfort: even for the 20% of them car would be the preferred mean of transportation. 8.5% currently use bikes, but this could rise to 15%.
When asked what they like less on the route to school, nearly 60% of elementary school children first indicates traffic congestion, followed by the excessive speed of cars and fear of an accident. The systematic escorting of children on the back-and-forth route to school and other regular destinations up to an advanced age – and in particular the fact that we transport them – has a major impact on their psychomotor development: if they don’t walk, kids do not elaborate the so called “mental maps” and end up losing them; they don’t know their neighborhoods at all because car transfers are “void” moments for them, moments when they don’t learn nor memorize anything but a dull routine. That’s why, in order to develop their sense of direction, researchers suggest to let children walk more often, especially between home and school.
Considering the car the only mean to move from one place to another is bad for autonomy apprenticeship and reduces the ability to adapt to new situations. If they don’t walk, kids miss many opportunities to socialize (such as binding with other kids, meeting other parents on the way to school, discovering the environment and so on). This adversely affects their psychosocial development: riding on a car, kids develop apathetic attitudes, lack of firmness and attention, with a bad influence on their academic results, because lack of exercise affects moods and concentration skills, as explained by studies that compare the working capacity of “commuters” motorists and cyclists.
On the other hand, very young children go often through challenges so fast they fail to assimilate and become frustrated, nervous, little confident in their abilities. All these elements should then be taken in high consideration even when (especially when, maybe) a family is planning the purchase of a new house and estimating the pros and cons of possible choices. Ensuring the proximity of the school to our children is not just a matter of convenience, it also demonstrates a real attention to their social and physical well being.