Blue Zones project, parents start 'walking school bus' program in Iowa City

Organizers hope to add three more schools in spring

Longfellow Elementary School second-grader Jack Dancer (foreground, left) walks to the school #x201c;aboard#x201d; the w
Longfellow Elementary School second-grader Jack Dancer (foreground, left) walks to the school “aboard” the walking school bus with his mother Julie Dancer (second from right), parent coordinator for the project, as well as his sister sixth-grader Jae (cq) Dancer (right), Diana Kremzar (background, right), health educator at Johnson County Public Health and Iowa City police officer Allan Mebus (background, left) in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014. The project is part of the Blue Zones initiative. The project will startup in the spring, when temperatures warm. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

For six weeks this fall, about a dozen students at Longfellow Elementary School in Iowa City walked to school in the morning.

They didn’t have to climb uphill both ways, and they weren’t trudging through the snow barefoot. But as part of a new “walking school bus” program started by the Blue Zones project and parent volunteers this year, organizers said the students got more exercise, spent more time with their classmates, and arrived at school more energized.

The program, which started in October and finished for the season on Nov. 19, has started out small. It attracted 11 total students this fall, said parent coordinator Julie Dancer, with an average of six students showing up each Wednesday for the weekly walk. Organizers said the program will likely expand to three other Iowa City elementary schools — Lincoln, Grant Wood and Lemme — in the spring, when the Longfellow walks also will resume.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from parents who, even if they haven’t participated yet, find it appealing,” said Shannon Greene, a Blue Zones project official who has helped organize the program. “The battle to drop your kid off at school in the morning is crazy with traffic.”

The program attempts to improve students’ health by building exercise into their day. It also allows students to spend more time with their parents and classmates, Greene said.

Those benefits are new to students now, when many Longfellow parents drive their children to school, but in the 1970s, two of every three students walked or biked to school, Greene said.

Dancer said she’s found walking to school less stressful and more energy-efficient than dropping her children off. Two of her four children participate in the program.

“It’s been nice for me to know that although I’m still driving them, I’m only driving them part of the way,” she said. “We can walk, we can get exercise and fresh air and save a little bit of gas.”

Organizers have partnered with the Iowa City Police Department and Johnson County Public Health, Greene said, and officials from both departments have participated. Dancer said volunteers have had to undergo background checks and safety training.

The children also have enjoyed the walks, Greene said.

“They’re skipping and singing and doing bird calls,” she said. “It also helps make them more aware of being a good pedestrian.”

The Longfellow program could double in size and in the number of days per week students walk in the spring, Dancer said. Longfellow principal Chris Pisarik said the program fits in well at the school.

“It’s a great way for children and families to build relationships while getting to school safely and on time for learning,” Pisarik said in an email.

Greene agreed.

“If there’s a way to get kids walking more for the physical benefits, and then the social benefits, it’s a neat way to get kids involved with (classmates),” she said.

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