Most parents dread the school run because it involves the stress of finding a parking place, traffic jams and, inevitably, running late. Photo: Matthew Jordaan

London - Most parents dread the school run because it involves the stress of finding a parking place, traffic jams and, inevitably, running late.

Over the past two decades, the number of children walking to school has dramatically fallen. Today, only half of all primary school pupils and 38 percent of youngsters at secondary school take to the pavements for the daily journey.

However, research suggests over-protective parents might be partly to blame for the problem - as their fears about travelling on foot are transferred to their offspring.

A survey, by the charity Living Streets, of more than 2,000 children aged seven to 14 found that more than a third were afraid of cars travelling too fast on their way to school. A fifth were concerned about a lack of safe crossing points, and a third of girls were worried about walking in the dark.

Many children were afraid of walking to school alone, with nearly one in five secondary-school pupils feeling nervous about being bullied. And 39 percent admitted to a fear of “stranger danger”.

Living Streets campaigns for walking to be the natural choice for short journeys and is lobbying the Government to make it easier for local councils to reduce speed limits.

Tony Armstrong, chief executive of Living Streets, says: “This survey illustrates how parents” fears are feeding into our children and getting them out of the walking habit.

“The results from our survey should be a wake-up call for the Government. If it’s serious about tackling obesity and encouraging local, active travel, it needs to send a strong message to local authorities, parents and individuals that addressing these barriers is key to healthier, happier communities.”

The charity’s findings mark the start of National Walking Month, a highlight of which is Walk To School Week, from May 16 to 20. Every year, around two million children, parents and teachers take part in activities run by the charity.

Free lesson resources are available on the Living Streets website, including geography, music literacy and numeracy and describing the journey to school in detail and comparing it with other pupils.

Mr Armstrong says: “Through our Walk To School campaign we are already reaching 1.6 million primary and secondary-school pupils, but we have a way to go to reverse the decline of the past two decades.

“We urge everyone to get walking during National Walking Month, especially in Walk To School Week.

“We believe every school and local council needs to invest in cost-effective schemes such as these.”

However, leading play consultant Rob Wheway believes Walk To School Week is merely “scratching the surface” of the problem. He thinks residential side-streets should be turned into 8mph zones - reviving a Fifties culture of children playing out in the streets.

He believes transforming side-streets into pedestrian-priority zones would reduce rat-running and encourage a sense of neighbourliness.

He adds: “A 20mph limit doesn’t make a road safe, it just makes the injuries sustained less severe. At that speed, parents still don’t let their children play outside.

“In residential roads that don’t serve a distributory function, we have to give priority to pedestrians and children’s wheeled vehicles, such as scooters.

“We either have to impose an 8mph limit, or say every residential side-street is, in essence, a pedestrian crossing. If children can play out in the street, they are constantly getting exercise, but almost no residential roads are fit for playing out on.”

Mr Wheway, a playground inspector who is also director of the Children’s Play Advisory Service, has studied more than 60 areas of housing across the country.

He found that where traffic speeds were 20mph or higher, parents kept their children indoors. However, when children were allowed to play outside, parents regarded of their area as being more neighbourly and friendly.

He says: “Children playing out should be part of a healthy lifestyle. “If all drivers living in residential roads were prepared to drive the final 50m to their home at very slow speeds, we could dramatically improve the play opportunities of our children, reduce obesity, increase neighbourliness and cut pollution.

“We’re not going to knock down houses to build play areas or fitness stations, so the only place for the vast majority of children to play outdoors is on the street.”

He adds: “Parents can’t take their children off to the park every day, which can be half a mile away. What children need is to be able to play outside their front door.” - Daily Mail

* FOR more information visit livingstreets.org.uk