18 May, 2012 Last updated: 30 Mar, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

Opinion piece published in the Herald Sun on 18 May 2012.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

As a leader in illness prevention, I often wonder what kind of world our children will inherit.

In a lot of ways, life will be easier for them, but they also face a much higher risk of serious health problems, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

In Victoria, one in four children are overweight or obese, a massive increase from just one in 20 in the 1960s.

It’s no wonder, when you consider that two-thirds of children in Victoria are now driven to school even though they live less than two kilometres away. That’s around 280,000 kids who are missing out on an opportunity for some easy physical activity twice a day.

VicHealth is really interested in what is driving this phenomenon.

Over the next three years, we will work with the Parenting Research Centre to produce Australia’s first large-scale study into parental fear. At the end of this work, we’ll have a clearer picture of why less children are walking to school than ever before – as well as some real solutions for parents.

Time and convenience is certainly part of it, but we have surveyed thousands of parents over the past few years and one thing is clear: fear is keeping kids cooped up.

Parents are becoming increasingly concerned about stranger-danger, traffic and neighbourhood crime.

Almost half of the 1500 Victorian parents we surveyed with children aged five to 11-years-old believe there is a high risk a child will be abducted by a stranger if their child is allowed to walk around their neighbourhood alone. Of course, this fear is not irrational, but it is disproportionate.

There is no evidence to show that streets are any less safe in terms of ‘stranger danger’ than they were 30 years ago.

We mustn’t let fear stop our kids from experiencing nature, risk, adventure and the great outdoors. Nor should we worry about being judged a poor parent.

Even for parents with busy lifestyles, time shouldn’t be an issue if you live within two kilometres of your school. By the time you’ve stopped at lights and signs, driven through 40km/h zones, gone around the block twice looking for a park, chances are, your child could have walked to school.

As well as the obvious benefits of regular physical activity for weight management, fitness and chronic illness prevention, it also helps kids to develop motor skills, coping skills and good self-esteem, to help them weather the storm of adolescence ahead.

Travelling without adults helps children develop a sense of control, independence and confidence in making their way around their world. Letting go is challenging, but it can be done.

Lenore Skenazy did. This New York mother copped a lot of flak for letting her nine-year-old ride the subway alone. But now she travels the world teaching other parents to let go of fear.

A fantastic initiative by the National Trust in the UK lists 50 things every kid should do before they turn 11 and three quarters. One of these things is for kids to go on a nature walk at night. When you consider that we are simply calling for parents to let their kids walk to school, we do have a way to go.

Friday May 18 was National Walk Safely to School Day.

It’s great to encourage children to get involved in this type of event, but parents need to think about ways to help their children be more active every day of the year as well.

Talk to other parents in your street about taking turns to walk with each other’s children to or from school. Or nominate buddy groups of older children who can walk together and without adults.

Drive part of the way to school and drop your children 500 metres away from the school entrance, so they can walk the remainder, or at a distance behind them.

If traffic is a problem, teach your children road safety and navigation skills by walking with them around the neighbourhood. Practice on weekends when roads are quieter and you have more time. And check out the Victoria Walks website, which provides great ideas for walks around your neighbourhood.

- Jerril