We know how to walk when we’re six weeks old, but we lack the muscle tone and coordination to actually do much about this — it’s like being given a bicycle, then told you’ll get the wheels in a few months. Fortunately, at this age we also lack the verbal skills to yammer endlessly about life’s obvious injustices.
Then, at about a year old, we take our first step, whereupon several complex processes begin, starting with a long negotiation with gravity. We stand clinging to an adult’s pant leg, then release and start to pitch forward. One leg swings out, and then another, and — whoa! — we lurch a step or two. Fall, repeat. Writing in 1863, the polymath Oliver Wendell Homes made walking sound like ad copy for a new PlayStation 4 game: “Walking is a perpetual falling with a perpetual self recovery,” he wrote. “It is the most complex, violent, and perilous operation, which we divest of its extreme danger only by continual practice from a very early period of life.”
Once we work out basic mechanics of forward motion, walking becomes a vehicle for developing the mind. We explore and find things. We learn about landmarks and anchoring. We develop our working memory, since it’s essential that we keep our destination and routes in mind as we navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of multiple distractions. (“Memo to self: Ignore interesting old tissue under coffee table. Continue onward to sleeping dog and throw self on it.”)
Independent movement is also an essential part in our social and emotional development — it’s in part how we learn about establishing and carrying out plans of our own, of learning to be ourselves. A number of studies have arrived via different routes at the same conclusion: Independent mobility doesn’t just coincide with dramatic changes in our behavior. Walking actually causes our behavior and thoughts about the world to change.
And this should be a cause of some concern today because of two things: Strollers. And cars.
Strollers have gotten a lot of attention lately, in large part because people without strollers often find those with strollers to be overbearing and threatening to their ankles — especially when these are double-wides or triple-longs. Sidewalks, Starbucks, shopping aisles and subways weren’t designed for them, and as such they have added another layer of navigational havoc to urban life.
But it turns out that sidestepping and ankle bruises might be the least of society’s worries. Strollers may also be interfering with how their riders connect with the world around them. Moving passively changes our interaction with our environment, but does so in ways we as yet only dimly understand.
For kids under a year old, prams make sense, of course, and for those under two strollers can be extremely handy. But the stroller period seems to be growing in duration, like a pro-sports season. It once drew to a close around age two, after which kids were expected to toddle around on their own. Now, parents keep them harnessed in strollers far longer, in part because it’s more efficient in getting around, and in part because it’s an easy solution to the global whining crisis.
“It is a worrying trend,” Dr Martin Ward-Platt, of the Royal Victoria Infirmary, in Newcastle, England, told The Guardian. “But one now takes for granted the sight of big children being pushed around in buggies, when in the past this was simply not the case.” (Laura Miller of Jersey City launched a short-lived Tumblr a couple of years ago featuring photographs of kids obviously too large for their strollers — limbs all akimbo and feet dragging on pavement. Stroller-using parents attacked Miller as a cold-hearted, barren bitch.)
What’s wrong with an extended stroller season? For one, and most obviously, it removes an outlet for burning calories — adding to a mounting problem. The Harvard School of Public Health reports that, worldwide, some 43 million kids under the age of five were overweight or obese in 2010 — a rise of 60 percent over just two decades earlier. That’s not all because of strollers, but… seriously.
Less obviously, more stroller time gives kids early training in how to come and stay. Walk? No, thanks. I’ll ride. No parent would give a kid a one-pound sack of sugar and a spoon, but eliminating walking is the equivalent on the output side of the equation.
Beyond weight issues, developmental experts have suggested that constantly being pushed about in a stroller may have other unintended effects. Language development may be impeded — kids can’t watch their parents’ faces as they talk which is, in part, how they learn about words and contextual meaning.
And always being pushed here and there eliminates having to make small, constant decisions — such how to navigate around minor obstacles, or maintain a sense of where they are by using their muscles and proprioceptive abilities. “The need and opportunity for children to make independent decisions occurs constantly during mobility,” Jessica Rose and James G. Gamble noted in Human Walking, “teaching children that they have their own unique wishes and desires, a critical step in socioemotional development.”
Once they’ve outgrown the stroller, kids are now increasingly cocooned in the backs of cars. Kids who walk to school today are now virtually an endangered species — only about one in ten does so, or roughly a quarter of those who walked to school daily a half-century ago. In cars, kids can retreat inwardly, with television screens that descend from the ceiling or handheld video games that serve the same effect as a dose of narcotics in keeping them quiet.
Children who walk on their own take control of their routes, which becomes part of their education. They often favor randomness and detours. One 2004 study looked at how adults and children, both traveling solo, mapped walks between their home and a school. The result? “Elementary school children as a group took much more complex routes than their adult counterparts.” They tended make arbitrary turns and chose to walk parallel to or even away from their destination for brief stretches. The researchers postulated that this behavior reflects the learning process, and this “environmental manipulation” was an essential part of personal growth: developing personal competence and a sense of space, and feeling more deeply anchored to their world.
In another study, social scientists found that that active modes of transport in getting to school (walking or biking) “appear to contribute more to the development of spatial knowledge than passive modes of travel” — that is, in walking, kids not only feel more anchored, but develop a much broader understanding of their immediate environment than non-walking kids.
How does a child’s perspective and personality change if they learn about the world solely by peering out a window of a moving car rather than immersing themselves traveling through by foot?
Nobody knows for sure. Even how exactly a car-generated cognitive map differs from a foot-generated one remains one of those unmapped frontiers. “Mechanically assisted direct experience, such as riding in a car, must surely lead to the acquisition of different knowledge than does unassisted experience, such as walking,” notes a 2004 study of cognitive mapping. “Though no research demonstrates this definitively, to our knowledge.”
I’m not an absolutist: The back seat of a car has much to commend it. It’s where I bonded with my brothers through the ritual of snack food larceny, followed by denials, yelling, and retribution. (Dad’s Wrathful Arm was one of the recurrent monsters of my childhood — it suddenly appeared from the front seat during times of localized backseat unrest, a disembodied and vengeful creature that flailed about as it enforced random justice.) I watched buildings and people and open landscapes scroll by the window while eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations, always listening for stories about the places we were passing; that’s how my world gradually became populated, and the landscape often a setting for a morality play. The back seat of a car offered a pleasant cloister while learning about the unfamiliar.
Yet the places that became more deeply woven into my soul were always those that I explored on foot. I was afforded a tremendous amount of individual freedom growing up — I walked more than a quarter-mile to my school bus stop by the time I was in second grade, albeit through backyards and fields rather than along busy roads. Walking is supremely interactive, an act in which one discovery leads to another, turning life into an endless, plaited chain begging to be untwined, rather than something that moves past at a remove, as if on a screen. On my walks to the bus I discovered wild onions and how packs of crows protected their own. I tried alternate routes and stumbled upon other familiar paths, thereby learning how networks linked. Roaming the world on foot was, essentially, reconnoitering my own mind.
Shielding children from the inconvenience and hazards of walking is an experiment that’s only several decades old — hardly a blink in the millions of years since we’ve become bipedeal. The early results of this experiment are just starting to trickle in, but the conclusions haven’t been encouraging: childhood obesity, behavioral problems, a vague sense of disaffection from the environment, an increasing reliance on prescription meds to put the world upright, a growing absorption with faux, digital worlds.
Walking more is certainly not the single-bullet solution to these issues. But walking less is, with equal certainty, putting us deeper in the slough, and making it harder for us to find our way out. • 22 July 2013