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Study: ‘Car Children’ Learn Less in School

Exercise and learning are linked.

If you drive your child to school, you decrease your child’s ability to learn the rest of the school day.

On the flip side, when children walk or bike to school, instead of being driven in a car, they concentrate much better and the effects last for a while.

This is one of the main conclusions of a study (http://www.foodoflife.dk/opus.aspx: in Danish) of 19,527 school children ages 5 to 19 just published by Niels Egelund, a professor at Aarhus University in Denmark. The results were made public recently by the research center OPUS, at the University of Copenhagen.

The study investigated the connections between diet, exercise and the ability to concentrate for school students of all ages. Among its many results, one really stood out: Children have less concentration if they do not exercise on the way to school.

The children were asked to answer questions about their exercise behavior and complete a simple concentration test (one such exercise involved putting together a puzzle composed of face pieces) and they were scored for correctness.

Children who made the trip to school by themselves performed far better than those who were transported to school by car or public transportation (bus or train).

“It is quite interesting that the exercise it takes to transport oneself to school directly reflects on the ability to concentrate, even four hours later in the day,” Egelund said. “Most people know how refreshed one feels after using one’s body, but it is surprising that the effect lasts that long.”

The study also showed that children who exercise more than two hours a week outside of school have a concentration advantage during the school day when compared to their more passive schoolmates.

“This result means that the parents have an enormous responsibility. I have a child in third grade and a child in ninth grade. I find it a great pity to see how many students are driving to school,” Egelund said. “You see long lines of cars in front of the school; some drove a very short distance. Parents should really pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

He also encourages parents to have their children play a sport or other physical activity, to avoid having the children sit in front of the computer or TV for many hours a day.

“We need to try to keep young people active, so that they increase their ability to learn,” he said.

The connection between learning with your head and our need to move around is still not completely mapped out.

“I believe that deep down we were naturally and originally not designed to sit still,” Egelund said. “We learn through our head and by moving. Something happens within the body when we move, and this allows us to be better equipped afterwards to work on the cognitive side.”

The Danish study also found that more Danish students walk or bike to school compared with Davis students for every school age group. A local tally bySafe Routes To School shows that in Davis, more than 60 percent of elementary students are driven to school.

Davis has the best bicycle infrastructure in the United States. If it is possible anywhere in the U.S. for students to walk and bike to school, it should be easiest and safest here in Davis. Clearly, more students should be walking or biking to schools in our city and this requires a change in mind-set for the school district and the entire town. Mainly though, it will be good for the children.

— Sanne Fettinger is a parent and volunteer active transportation coordinator of the Scan & Notify program at Birch Lane Elementary School. 

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susan jones January 29, 2013 at 08:57 PM
My boot straps are pulled up... Unfortunately it's what is available to be learned before and after school why many, including myself often drive our children in our bicycle town. Also there are some wonderful teachers in our district who recognize the value of getting up and moving, just takes a little effort and everyone benefits. I wonder if the participants of the study, if their students have such easy access to illegal substance as we do here?
Maha January 30, 2013 at 04:55 PM
Nice article, Sanne! I think one reason you don't see more young bikers is that parents are concerned about safety. When my older son was starting 3rd grade, I asked around to get him into a biking group. The deal would have been that for the first 2-3 weeks, an adult would ride with them, ensuring safety rules were followed and the kids all learned the prescribed route. No one accepted. There were various reasons, but the prevailing one was that parents 'were not ready' for their kids to ride by themselves. This really surprised me as I'd just read how 1st graders in Finland walked through forests alone to get to school! We decided to let our son ride to school anyway. For the first 3 weeks we rode to and from every day with him. Then we let him go on his own. It worked out well for us, and he gained a huge amount of independence. This year we allowed his younger brother (a second grader) to ride to and from. We did the same thing: the first 2 weeks we rode to and from. Now both our kids are pretty confident bikers. Although my kids follow safety rules and they're relatively safe in the neighborhoods, it's them crossing Covell that bothers me the most. Drivers seem to be aware, but it's always a concern that someone will be travelling to fast to stop in time. Maybe having alternating parent volunteers act as sentries at various points along a bike route would make other parents feel better about allowing their kids to ride to school by themselves.
Sanne January 31, 2013 at 05:26 PM
Hi Maha, Thank you. Yes, I understand your concern and always encourage that several students bike/walk together. Another solution is that many parents bike with their students. Yes, I hope that crossing Covell has improved after we had the no turn on red sign installed and the crossing guard can feel safer being in the intersections and help everyone that is crossing the street. I do believe that if more students bike/walk to school - there would be less cars on the road, making it safer for all of us and breathing healthier air at the same time.
Sanne January 31, 2013 at 05:28 PM
Susan - As far as I know drugs are available everywhere. We hope to teach our children to make healthy choices. You may want to bike/walk with your children.

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