By Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun October 9, 2012
Walking to school is something that grandparents brag about having done and most kids whine about having to do.
But given a high-tech and international twist, it's the latest and greatest thing at two Vancouver elementary schools.
For the kids, it has nothing to do with concerns about childhood obesity or carbon emissions.
What's motivating the 634 kids at Laura Secord elementary school is the prospect of winning a three-country challenge by walking the most kilometres this month.
The competition is called Beat the Street (beatthestreet.me), which is funded by the London 2012 Olympics legacy program to coincide with International Walk to School Month. The Olympic funding explains the choice of schools - they're in the three most recent host countries.
Competing to see who can walk the farthest are kids at Vancouver's Kitchener School as well as students in schools in London and Shanghai.
All the kids have either fobs or magnetic cards that they swipe at "beat boxes" located at the schools and on light poles within each school's enrolment area.
Every time they swipe their fobs or cards, their mileage is logged on a public website.
To ensure that only trips to and from school are logged, the boxes are only activated between 7: 30 and 9 a.m. and 3 and 4 p.m.
A serendipitous, if unintended, consequence is that kids are now arriving at school on time in order to collect their points.
What's helping motivate Laura Secord students are all the Canadian Olympians and Para-lympians who are dropping by to cheer them on as they arrive on foot in the morning or head for home after school.
Olympic rower Andrew Byrnes was there Friday passing around his silver medal from London in the men's eights, so kids could see it and touch it.
The six-foot-seven-inch rower, who towers over the kids, says going to elementary schools to promote healthy lifestyles is "the most rewarding part of being an Olympic medallist."
Byrnes says he walked or rode his bike to school every day as a kid growing up in Ithaca, N.Y. and Toronto.
"I wish they had a program like this in every elementary school."
Dr. William Bird is the physician behind the program, which builds on earlier work he and his company, Intelligent Health (intelligenthealth.co.uk) have done in British schools.
After last year's competition that pitted students in London against those in New York, Bird found that 17 per cent of the participants kept on walking to school. The biggest change was among girls - 45 per cent of whom said they'd keep walking.
Bird's local collaborator and enthusiastic booster is Sandy James, a former city of Vancouver planner who organized last year's international walking conference at which Bird was a keynote speaker.
"It takes three to four weeks to change people's behaviour," she says, explaining why the competition lasts a month.
There are studies that show kids are more attentive in class, if they get daily exercise. There are also studies indicating that kids who walk to school are more likely to do other physical activities. That was evident on Friday at Laura Secord as dozens of kids led by one of the moms learned dance moves to go with Michael Jackson's Beat It.
That's all great. But James says there are social benefits as well.
"Walking to school also tends to break up the cliques - particularly among the Grade 6 and 7 students - that can be so hurtful and often result in bullying."
At Laura Secord school, it's not just the kids who are changing their behaviour.
"The number of cars is drastically down since this has started," says Kate Montgom-erie, the mom who organized Laura Secord's participation.
"Parents don't want to be seen dropping their kids off. Whether it's because of social pressure or because the kids don't want to be driven because they want to participate, I'm not really sure."
What's so great about this initiative is its simplicity.
The technology, which is similar to what's used to time races such as The Vancouver Sun Run, isn't that expensive and the units used for this competition will remain with the city of Vancouver.
For cash-strapped parents, walking doesn't require anything beyond a pair of comfortable shoes (and maybe an umbrella).
As for the kids, they may gain bragging rights over their grandparents and great-grandparents.
And, who knows? In their healthy old age, they may just bore their grandchildren with tales of walking one or two or even five kilometres to school in the wind, rain and even snow - and they walked just for the fun of it.
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