SOLON — Walking to school is a treat for fifth-graders Hunter Sousa and Conner Peabody, who say they enjoy talking with their friends on days they walk to the Solon Elementary School.

On Tuesday morning the two 10-year-olds were at the front of the pack in a long line of students participating in a Walking School Bus that the school hosts about four times per year.

Wednesday is National Walk to School and Bike to School Day, and the students were getting a jump start on their physical activity for the week.

Rather than riding the bus or riding in a car to school, students who participate in the Walking School Bus are dropped off about a half-mile from the Solon Elementary School in the parking lot of the United Methodist Church thrift shop.

Along with a small group of parents and volunteers, they walk to school, where they enjoy a healthy snack before starting the school day. The event is a popular one at the Solon school. It is voluntary, but nearly all of the roughly 100 students participate.

It’s also part of a larger trend in Walking School Bus activities that are becoming popular at schools across the state in part because of the Walking School Bus program, a partnership of the Maine Center for Disease Control, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine and Maine Department of Transportation, and programs such as the one at Solon Elementary School, which is part of the Maine Safe Routes to School program at the DOT.

“It’s a great way to start the day with a walk to school,” said Alicia Golden, president of the Solon Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization, which helped start the activity about two years ago.

The Walking School Bus runs with the support of Somerset Public Health and its Move More Kids program and a Let’s Go! 5-2-1-0 grant. The grant comes from The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center and is part of a childhood obesity prevention program.

The funding mostly goes to provide the snack, which on Tuesday included milk, yogurt with granola and fresh plums. Somerset Public Health also provides volunteers who help supervise the walk.

“We try to encourage all elementary schools to provide a coordinated, safe walking route to school,” said Kristie LeBlanc, physical activity program coordinator at Somerset Public Health. “It’s a good way to get exercise in and wake up, so that students have done some physical activity before sitting down to learn.”

In Solon, the Walking School Bus activity is held four times per year — twice in the fall and twice in the spring.

The school is part of School Administrative District 74, which includes the communities of Anson, Embden, New Portland and Solon, and Golden said other elementary schools in the district have also hosted Walking School Buses.

“The district is a pretty widespread area, so for a lot of students there isn’t an opportunity to walk to school regularly,” Golden said. Organizers hope that hosting the event a few times a year encourages students to get more activity in with their families, including many parents who volunteer to attend the walk.

“It’s a fun opportunity to get outside,” said Carrie Peabody, the mother of Conner Peabody. Although they are close by, the family lives on U.S. Route 201, a busy road with no sidewalk, so normally it doesn’t make sense for Conner to walk to school, she said.

“It really wakes them up, and there’s always a good turnout,” said Pat Hines, an education technician at the school.

The students arrive at the thrift shop between 7:15 a.m. and 7:25 a.m., and they promptly start walking at 7:25. It takes them about 15 minutes to get to school, where they get to enjoy the snack before the first bell rings.

“It’s fun because you get to talk to your friends,” said Hunter Sousa, of Embden. “And it’s good exercise before school starts.”

Classmate Abby Avery, of Solon, agreed. “I like to walk. I like the exercise,” said Avery, who said she doesn’t walk every day because she lives about six miles from school.

In other parts of the state, the Walking School Bus operates daily through the Walking School Bus program, which started in Maine in 2012. It is currently in three schools — the East End Elementary School in Portland, Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School in Ellsworth and Rowe Elementary School in Norway.

Those schools operate daily Walking School Bus routes for students who live within 1 mile of their school. Golden said that while increasing the frequency of Walking School Bus events is something the PTO has thought about, for now it will remain a once-in-a-while treat.

Almost all of the teachers at the school volunteer to supervise the walk or help serve breakfast. “They’re really exceptional,” Golden said. “It wouldn’t be possible without the teacher participation, and they all pull together.”

Solon physical education teacher Kirk Robinson said the Walking School Bus is part of an effort to include movement throughout the day, as many schools are cutting back on recess and physical education classroom time.

The American Heart Association and U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention both recommend that children get at least one hour of physical activity each day.

Students in Solon have physical education class once per week for 45 minutes, while middle school students in the district have it twice per week for 45 minutes. Robinson said the difference is mostly related to staffing needs and scheduling.

The elementary school students also have just 15 minutes of recess after lunch. They do get some recess time before and after school starts, but it rarely adds up to more than 30 minutes per day, Robinson said. As a result, he said, there is more of an effort to encourage students to spread physical activity throughout their day.

On Wednesdays, for example, they participate in a weekly Wake Up Wednesday, when they do physical activities such as jumping jacks or dance routines before the school day starts.

“Walking is something that is easy to do for your health,” Robinson said. “It’s good to have activities like (the Walking School Bus) where adults are participating too, because it sets a good example. It shows the kids that you can move throughout your life.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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