Study Finds that Children Driven To School Learn Less

children-bikingBy Sanne Fettinger

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

On the contrary, 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 ( 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,” professor 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.  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,” observed Professor Egelund, who also 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.

Learning requires movement

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,” Professor 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.

Written based partly on a translation by Sanne Fettinger, parent and volunteer active transportation coordinator of the Scan & Notify program at Birch Lane School.

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  1. biddlin

    I am a big supporter of kids getting more exercise and when I was a child in Canada, we started the school day with stretches and calisthenics ! I despise the trend in schools to remove physical education from the schedule . I also recognise that walking or biking to school are neither practical nor safe in many communities . I reject the premise and can think of few less comparable societies than Denmark and the US .

  2. Frankly

    [i]less comparable societies than Denmark and the US . [/i]

    Denmark is incomparable in almost every way to the US.

    But I agree with you that physical exercise should be a big part of public school education. In fact, I would go farther and say that physical activity in general is important for learning… and for some students it is essential. But we have eliminated most of that type of thing in public education.

    Interesting that I would lecture my children for misbehaving as a punishment… and lecturing is still the main method for our education system to deliver instruction.

    We need much more hands-on instruction… blending of practical and theoretical. We need more arts and indistrial arts, and stop trying to create so many paper-pushers.

    Biking to school will help the child wake up. It will cause him to use his brain navigating a physical environment to reach a destination where he will be forced to stay seated, still and awake while listening to some teacher drone on in some uninspiring lecture.

  3. Eric Gelber

    Yet another popular media presentation of a correlational study concluding, or at least implying, a causal relationship. Perhaps, for example, there are other factors–e.g., parenting practices, nutritional habits–that are responsible for both kids’ biking to school and their better school performance. Or perhaps there’s another cause–e.g., the Danish children who biked were more likely to stop along the way for a danish, which improved their concentration. Of course exercise is beneficial in all sorts of ways; but let’s not be too quick to accept conclusions from a correlational study merely because it’s consistent with pre-conceieved notions (or common sense).

  4. Don Shor

    So let’s start the day at school with exercise, rather than trying to push parents to change their transportation practices. This sentence bother me:
    [i]”more students [b]should be[/b] walking or biking to schools in our city and this requires a change in mind-set for the school district and the entire town. “[/i]
    Families have their reasons for how they transport their children. Exercise is great; let’s encourage it. But this sort of correlational study (to use Eric’s term) shouldn’t drive policy.

  5. Frankly

    GI, that is very judgmental of you. I my son’s case, he played the Tenor saxophone throughout middle school and high school, and he could not ride his bike. My oldest rode his bike, had two stolen and broke his collarbone in a crash because of his heavy backpack (from the mountains of over-priced paper books needed because of the rejection of technology by the system stuck with Medieval methods that ensure adults get their money) he had to transport back and forth from the mountains of homework that the system assigns because the teachers don’t do enough teaching in class. So, we drove him more often.

  6. Davis Progressive

    “GI, that is very judgmental of you. “

    on the contrary, it’s self-critical. our kids were driven. why? because they were lazy and we accommodated them. you can always find reasons not to do something that you don’t want to do. you always finds ways to do things that you do. that’s just life.

  7. Don Shor

    Let me make a couple of editing suggestions from a marketing standpoint.

    Instead of:
    [i]”If you drive your child to school, you decrease your child’s ability to learn the rest of the school day.”[/i]

    Try this:
    “Biking or walking to school increases your child’s ability to learn the rest of the school day!”

    Instead of:
    [i]”Davis has the best bicycle infrastructure in the United States. 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.”[/i]

    Try this:
    “Davis is a great place to bike! With our extensive network of bike paths, and safety programs in place, more students could be walking or biking to school. If you’ve never thought about your kid biking or walking, or have safety concerns, contact __________ for more information. Getting more exercise in the morning can help your child to better in school!”

    The study, with a positive approach, could be sent out as information to parents, along with any bike safety programs that are already in place. Start using guilt to sell stuff, and it usually backfires.

  8. More

    In a platinum bicycle town like Davis – biking/walking should be the preferred method of getting to school. Not only is exercise good for us all, but the pollution created by driving your child to school does not help anyone.

  9. Ryan Kelly

    Davis has a “drive and drop off” culture. It is considered good parenting. Parents who send their kids to school on their bikes or walking are viewed as either poor or neglectful. I actually had a mother tell this to me.

  10. Davis Progressive

    has davis really become the place where we attack the den mother who asks her cub scouts to bike rather than drive? what next, attacking the advocate who suggests we turn off the tv and video games? i think we really need to look in the mirror because don i used to respect your view as a sort of moderate voice, but the truth is when you don’t agree with something, you’re just as intolerant as jeff boone, you just used a bit more tactful language.

  11. Frankly

    GI, I am very tolerant. For example, I don’t have a problem with your mistaken opinion that I am intolerant. I think you might be mistaking disagreement with intolerance. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people that do that.

    [i]on the contrary, it’s self-critical. our kids were driven. why? because they were lazy and we accommodated them.[/i]

    Thanks for that explanation. We also chose to drive the kids for much of their school experience. But I don’t see it as a lazy thing. Just a choice while weighing all the pros and cons.

    However, I do think that some parents are overly accommodating. As the kids get into middle-school the lord of the flies stuff kicks in, and there is classism and groupism… and the kids that ride their bikes are looked down on. However, with a large percentage of Davis parents so quick to be judgmental of people not sharing their worldview, it is no surprise that their kids grow up with their own style of judgmentalism.

  12. Just me

    Do you live a couple of blocks from school? Do you live a couple of miles? Does the child have to walk on quiet serene streets? Does the child have to walk down busy main roads and even over freeway overpasses? There is NO WAY, in the name of safety, my child will walk or ride a bike to school! That would be a tragedy just waiting to happen!

  13. rusty49

    “i think we really need to look in the mirror because don i used to respect your view as a sort of moderate voice, but the truth is when you don’t agree with something, you’re just as intolerant as jeff boone, you just used a bit more tactful language.”

    Oh no, say it’s not so. Don turning into a Republican and being just as intolerant as Jeff Boone all in the same day. Don, welcome to the club, if you don’t think and act like ‘they’ want you to it must be because you are intolerant.

  14. Frankly

    LOL! Rusty. I feel honored in some strange way. I am progressing on this blog to the point where the people that bristle over name-calling will call a person “Jeff Boone” as an insult.

    As far as Don turning into a Republican, I think he already is a Teddy Roosevelt Republican.

    It is interesting that the term “progressive” was first a Republican-related label. TR split the GOP back then because the hard-core conservatives didn’t agree with him. He got the ball rolling on environmentalism and anti-corporate power. TR was a privileged academic limousine liberal in many respects… when he wasn’t out warring with his Roughriders or on African safari killing boatloads of wild animals.

    I love reading history about US politics because you see the same ideas, divisions and groups… we just keep forgetting that it all happened before, and we keep changing the labels.

  15. Ryan Kelly

    A whole generation of kids in Davis survived having to bike around a mile to elementary school, 1-2 miles to Junior High and up to 3 miles to High School. Then there was the 1-2 miles to swim practice or down to the Scout cabin. And the summer bike trips starting around 7 or 8th grade out to Stevenson’s Bridge to swim and at least one bike trip to Lake Berryessa per summer. Regular bike trips to the Varsity theater with friends to attend the PTA sponsored film festivals after school on Fridays. Bike trips out to the animal barns on campus or over to the arboretum to catch frogs. In that time period (2 decades) no one was killed, or snatched. There were bike crashes and spills now and then, but we all survived. And now we hear that we were better for it.

  16. Frankly

    Ryan – There are many more cars now. Much more traffic. I ride my bike to work sometimes, and I have had several near misses from people not paying attention. Most of the time it is either a college student or senior that pulls out in front of me, or turns into me. I ended up on the hood of a car one time.

    However, both my boys did the Rainbow Summer program and rode their bikes.

    Like isn’t without risks.

    But I would be careful from a historical perspective, because it is much more dangerous now.

  17. Ryan Kelly

    There are safe routes to schools that go down primarily residential side streets and bike paths away from major busy thoroughfares near campus could be identified. I don’t think it is any more dangerous now. Remember, we rode with no helmets. What we did have was instruction in the rules of the road and a view that a bike was a mode of transportation, not just something to wheel around on for play.

  18. rusty49

    Maybe this is why many parents won’t let their kids bike or walk to school:

    “Davis police have arrested a 25-year-old man in connection with Saturday’s sexual assault and robbery on the Davis Community Church grounds, thanks to a phone call from an alert citizen.

    Christopher Lynn Romone Turk, a transient, was lodged at the Yolo County Jail on Monday night on charges of sexual assault, robbery, burglary, false imprisonment and sexual battery, Lt. Glenn Glasgow said. He is being held in lieu of $150,000 bail, and his arraignment is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in Yolo Superior Court.

    Police said the alleged assault occurred at about 11:20 a.m. Saturday as the victim, a 34-year-old woman, searched the church grounds at 412 C St. for an animal adoption center.

    While there, she reportedly was confronted by a man who brandished a pair of scissors at her, then assaulted her before fleeing with some of the woman’s personal property. The Davis Police Department issued a news release about the crime on Sunday, along with the suspect’s description.”

  19. Don Shor

    GI: thanks for the critique. I do take comments like yours seriously. I did try in my last comment to put a more positive spin on the issue Sanne Fettinger was reporting.

    Let me try again to explain why I sounded irritated by this article. When my kids were in the district, the most important consideration to us as parents was whether their placement was appropriate — whether the school, the program, and the teachers were providing the best environment for their particular aptitudes. For one child, that meant Special Ed and GATE. Both were in DSIS at one time or another. Thanks to considerable interaction and cooperation between ourselves and the school district, both excelled and the outcomes were excellent. Had we not exercised different school choices and, in some cases, pressed hard for them, outcomes would not have been excellent.

    So when I see anything that I think is likely to interfere with a parent’s choice within the system to find that best placement for the child, I bristle. When I hear people question the motives of parents in moving their children, when I hear people disparage GATE, when I see anything that seems as though it is an attempt to homogenize the learning situation, I bristle.

    In previous discussions about Montgomery, and intradistrict transfers, the suggestion was made that they be halted. One of the school board candidates made that a specific issue. And to my consternation, a member of a local bike group actually supported that position on the basis that intradistrict transfers interfere with a student’s ability to bike to school. This seems to me to be a misplaced priority. Biking is good, and the article shows that exercise helps kids learn better. That’s fine. But there are lots of things that come ahead of biking to school in my priorities for kids, parents, and the school district.

    Ryan has aptly described how safe biking can be implemented: in groups. I believe the district actually facilitates that. I know that there were resources on the City of Davis web site that helped parents make safe biking decisions for their kids. Unfortunately, I just checked and those links are all still broken, but perhaps the web site will have them again some day. There are lots of things that people can do to encourage kids to bike, and — separately — to get more exercise. Again, though, I bristle at comments about what people ‘should’ do. My kid was rowing for a couple of hours every day. He didn’t need to bike to school.

    Like most parents, I cared a great deal about the safety and well-being of my children. I would not tolerate harassment or bullying, and I would not accept a transportation situation that I considered unsafe. I didn’t hesitate to have my kids walk to my business from Valley Oak once they were 5th or 6th grade, but younger? No. I know my risk tolerance level, and I won’t judge another parent whose risk tolerance level might be lower or higher than my own.

    I greatly admire Teddy Roosevelt, and wish there were still Republicans like him. And as police commissioner of New York City, he established a bicycle squad and rode a bike to and from work.

  20. wdf1

    Don Shor: [i]I greatly admire Teddy Roosevelt, and wish there were still Republicans like him.[/i]

    If Teddy Roosevelt were born in today’s generation, I don’t think he’d be a Republican.

    JB: [i]…broke his collarbone in a crash because of his heavy backpack (from the mountains of over-priced paper books[/i]

    I’m sorry for your son’s misfortune. For parents today dealing with situations like this, I recommend finding extra copies of school textbooks online at For our high school students, we regularly purchased used but decent copies of math and science textbooks, usually under $5, and a couple of times for a $1. We donated them to the school when they graduated.

  21. wdf1

    …purchased the extra textbooks so that there would be a copy at home, one at school, and never the need to transport. One of our kid’s DHS teachers scanned the whole textbook and put it online in PDF format. So teachers are taking advantage of technology.

  22. Frankly

    [i]If Teddy Roosevelt were born in today’s generation, I don’t think he’d be a Republican.[/i]

    Maybe not, but TR would have some serious problems with the Democrat’s assault on the Second Amendment. He also probably would not like the Democrat’s foreign policy and plans to gut the military.

  23. jimt

    Is biking considered “cool” these days in Junior High School or High School?
    If its uncool; maybe that’s why more high school students don’t pedal to school–by that age they can certainly take care of their safety in traffic; I see no reason why most high school students can’t bike or walk to school (but as I understand it, many or most of them get dropped off by car).

    From 1st grade thru High School I walked or biked (starting about 3rd-4th grade) the two miles to school and back every day; except if it was raining hard I took the bus. Never considered it a hardship. Cycling was slightly ‘uncool’ in high school; but I didn’t let that bother me; I liked biking sometimes.

    Seems to me parents could at the minimum encourage their kids to walk (at least by Junior High age) or pedal (at least by high school age) to school; better for their physical and mental health.

  24. wdf1

    A somewhat related article I remember reading in the past couple of years was about how many HS age students were NOT as interested in getting their driver’s license as in previous generations. I don’t know if that dynamic makes it likelier or not that HS students would ride their bikes.

  25. PeterSmi246

    My situation is the as same as this article. My 8 years kid drive a bicycle about 5 miles to go to his school. I agree that the students who drive learn less. He is somewhat weak in his studies. I did everything like coaching classes, but his marks are still the same. But, I think beside this is driving a bicycle and walking is good for health and though the marks are little less but driving will help to keep you fit.

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