By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett, Special to MyRGV.com

It was one of the first cooler days of fall and the sky was that brilliant South Texas blue. We stood on a street corner several blocks from Russell Elementary School in West Brownsville — a group of Brownsville Independent School District (BISD) administrators and teachers.

The former were dressed in business suits and the latter in school spirit shirts — red, white and blue for their Patriot mascot. Among the crowd was BISD Superintendent Dr. Rene Gutierrez, State Representative Eddie Lucio III, Russell Elementary School Principal, Careli Ann Garza, and several other school staff.

Coming down the block from two different directions, were two small crowds of kids and parents and teachers, all in their spirited shirts. The kids and adults were excited as they came together and formed a longer line of walkers. We cheered them on and joined them in a little parade walking the couple of remaining blocks to the school.

The occasion was ‘National Walk to School Day’. It was spearheaded by school counselor, Marbelia “Marby” Moreno Sweeny, who is also the sponsor of the school’s very active recycling club.

“I want the kids to experience active transportation — to know they can use their own bodies to move themselves from one place to another. I want them to start the day having breathed in the fresh air, smelled the flowers and listened to the birds. I want them to have a piece of what we had as children — that feeling of freedom and even independence that walking to school can give us.”

Fifth-grader Morelia Robledo, carrying a trash bag and wearing rubber gloves, enthusiastically picked up trash along the walk, in her recycling club cap and ‘Save the Turtles’ T-shirt.

“I had fun walking today! It was like we were in a parade and everyone was talking and friendly. I got some exercise so now I feel more awake.”

The event reminded me of my childhood years of walking or riding my bike to school with my sister and a little neighborhood crew of kids. We used to create wild imaginary adventures on our walks to school and sometimes stop and pick flowers, catch lizards or even climb trees.

I remember getting up earlier than I had to for school so I didn’t miss the walk and “free time” with friends before the bell rang.

I asked some of the parents at the event if they thought it possible that their kids could walk to school every day, not just one day a year. Some of the answers were interesting. Most of them said they loved the idea but just didn’t think it was possible here. When I asked for specific reasons, people mostly mentioned that it would be too dangerous for kids to walk alone and they didn’t have the time to walk with them.

Anyone who has driven their kids to school and waited for hours in drive lines and traffic knows that walking may indeed be the quicker option.

Sweeny suggests that people might be afraid of the wrong things.

“Sometimes we’re afraid because it just isn’t the norm. But just because it’s normal, doesn’t make it right. What I fear more than kids walking to school is that many kids in our community are being deprived of healthy childhood experiences like being outside, riding a bike, free time to play and explore nature, grow their imaginations.”

The scientific evidence suggests Sweeny is right to be afraid of not getting kids outside and moving. High rates of childhood obesity, attention disorders and other physical and mental health issues in our local population could be improved with more time engaged in physical activity, nature exposure and unstructured play.

It is well documented that more time outside and more exercise are linked to improved academic outcomes as well.

Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

In his best-selling book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”, author Richard Louv discusses the harm we do our kids when we keep them inside in over-structured environments, worrying about their safety to the point of depriving them of normal, healthy experiences with minimal risks that help them develop and grow in a healthy way.

Back at the event, Principal Garza greeted the kids and parents gathered in the school yard at the end of the walk, smiling ear-to-ear.

“Children,” she addressed the young kids, “when our bodies are fit, our minds work better.”

This was a message reiterated by Superintendent Gutierrez and Representative Lucio as they spoke to the gathered crowd of kids, ranging in ages from 4 to 12 years old.

“This is my first year as principal at this school and I’m so excited at the participation in this event. I definitely want to support anything that brings parents, staff and students together like this and promotes health, fitness and learning!”

As the morning bell rang, Robledo picked up her backpack and trash bag and headed with the other kids to class, I briefly asked her why she had decided to participate in the event.

“I really want to protect our planet and that’s why I came today. I mean, cars are okay but they damage the earth. We should be walking more when we can. And it was fun to be outside!”

So, what would it take to make walking (or cycling) to school more doable, beyond just the one-day event per year? There are some proven effective methods that many communities have used all over the world to help enable people to use streets, sidewalks and other public spaces for car-free transportation.

There are also innovative programs like the “Walking School Bus,” which recruits school parent volunteers who take turns walking with a group of kids from the neighborhood to school, by picking them up in front of their homes and adding them to the “walking bus” of kids.

It’s a way to rotate the responsibility of walking the kids on a route to school if parents don’t feel safe letting them go on their own. It is also a way for parents to get some added exercise.

By thinking outside what has become the “norm” of only driving or busing kids to school, even if they live just blocks away from their campus, we can work together as schools and communities to create safe routes to schools and to enable kids the simple joy of getting outside and walking, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!).