October 12, 2022 | Emily Ford Sytsma
Preschool is a great time for children to start walking more. While the American Academy of Pediatrics does not have guidelines regarding strollers, the AAP noted when interviewed by ABC News that children “should be transitioning out of a stroller at around three years-old.” Like other items that babies and toddlers need (pacifiers, bibs, sippy cups, etc.), a stroller offers convenience for a season and then should phase out so that children can take a next stop in independence.
Building the foundational habits for an active lifestyle is an obvious health benefit of walking instead of riding. But there are developmental benefits as well that cross many domains:
Stamina and physical development-Walking builds physical stamina, which in turn supports cognitive stamina. Core muscles and gross motor coordination are built through walking. That strength helps children engage at school with energy and focus. Strong core muscles make it easier for children to sit still and pay attention during the times when they need to listen. And that work of listening and sorting information helps children build stamina for tuning out distraction. Cognitive stamina, often shown in a child’s attention span that is multiplying in these first years of school, highly correlates to school success later.
Social-emotional development-It’s easy to be passive when riding in a stroller. Walking on your own builds independence and self-esteem. There are so many decisions to make and each initiated choice is a chance for a child to learn about their competence and the things they can do on their own. They learn how to know when to stop and go and what the safety rules are. They evaluate which of the interesting objects they see along the way will offer a satisfying interaction if they stop to take a look or pick it up or kick it. And the exercise of the walk produces endorphins that increase feelings of happiness and calmness and are good for mental health.
Language development- More social interaction is available to children outside of the stroller. As a child walks along, there is more to see, do and talk about. Vocabulary can increase. Practicing the give-and-take of conversation supports students’ collaboration at school. Children encounter the symbolic world around them more completely when they are out of the stroller as well. They notice and ask about signs and other printed text they encounter and begin to extend their understanding of the work that numbers and letters do.
How do I begin this transition to walking independently? Some people like to go cold turkey but most families find that a gradual increase of walking works best.
Maybe you could try getting your child out of the stroller a few blocks before school or start walking as you leave and then use the stroller after a few blocks. Stretch that distance as your child adjusts to walking more. (Don’t worry that your child is walking too much–most experts estimate that children can walk 1/2 a mile or a mile per year of their life. So, a three year-old can walk 1.5 to 3 miles a day!)
If you are driving a car, you can get out a few blocks away from the school. I know other families have tried this and discovered that their preschool child can walk more than they thought. Others have tried scooting to school or having their children ride bikes. We do have a bike rack for storage of those kinds of vehicles!
Walking up stairs is another way to stretch the walking work. If you live in an elevator building, get out a few floors above or below your floor and finish the trip on the stairs.
For some children, getting out some of that energy before school helps them enter into their day ready to listen and learn. For others, increased walking builds the stamina they need to participate fully and to do their strongest work.
So… keep walking!