COLUMBIA - The crunch of leaves beneath their feet was muffled by the children's voices as they paraded to school, carrying signs to let drivers know that it was International Walk to School Day at Swansfield Elementary and around the world.
"Walk don't pollute," read one of the handmade signs on display during the event Wednesday. "Be cool, walk to school," said another.
50 schools take part
Swansfield was one of 50 schools in Maryland that took part in the ninth annual event, and the school's 500 pupils were among an estimated 3 million people who walked to their schools in more than 35 countries on six continents
Shannon Toole and his children, fifth-grader Gideon and third-grader Mary Kate, were joined by others in their neighborhood for the trek to Swansfield. The Toole family dog, German shepherd mix Madison, joined the family, wagging his tail.
Walk-to-school day, which began in the United Kingdom, is designed to promote safety for children walking to school and the need for physical activity in children's lives. Although the Toole children and their friends looked forward to the walk, some pupils weren't as excited.
"Do we have to walk back after school?" said Sara Moyers, a fifth-grader who said she usually takes the bus. "My mom forced me to walk to school today," Sara said. She did concede that the walk was fun, although she was hot on the overcast day.
Most American children don't walk to school even once a week, according to a Centers for Disease Control study released last month. Distance was the No. 1 reason parents gave for why they don't let their children walk to school.
Toole said most Swansfield pupils live within two miles of the school.
On an average day, "we have 100 to 150 parents dropping off their kids each morning," said Toole's wife, Jennifer, the PTA member who organized the walk-to-school day at Swansfield.
Jennifer Toole said pupils' safety is an issue and one reason the PTA organized the event.
According to statistics from Safe Kids Worldwide, about 650 school-age pedestrians are killed each year in traffic accidents in the United States, and 43,000 are injured.
On Wednesday, Safe Kids released a ranking of the metropolitan areas most dangerous for children to walk in. The Baltimore-Washington area ranked 31st out of 47 areas with populations of at least 1 million.
In Columbia, Swansfield is on a main road, Cedar Lane. The bustling street can intimidate some pupils.
"One time I was walking to school and an ambulance was right there," said third-grader Matthew Sachs, indicating that the vehicle was feet from where he was walking. Sachs, who usually bikes or rides the bus to school, said, "That was scary."
Focus on fitness
Although no pupils have been injured in traffic accidents near Swansfield in the past few years, Jennifer Toole said, "It's something we're always concerned about." However, the school's main focus is on fitness, she said. The walk-to-school day began a program at the school called Walking Wednesdays.
Pupils at Swansfield will be encouraged to walk laps during Wednesday recess, said PTA member Kathy Eckley.
"The goal is to get them moving during recess, to not just play kickball or stand around talking to friends," she said.
Prizes will be awarded to the classes with the most participants, and pupils can earn prizes for every five miles they walk, Eckley said.
Pupils who walked to school at Swansfield were rewarded with stickers and neon backpack zipper pulls. Donated by Safe Kids, the reflective tags make it easier for drivers to see children as they walk to and from school.
Mari Perry writes for the Capital News Service