Katherine Roberts: Walking is the best teacher

08/12/2014 12:00 AM

08/09/2014 10:49 AM

My children and I emerged tired and happy from the Museum of Life and Science in Durham. We had passed a whole summer day there, following our interests and taking our time with the exhibits and we chatted gamely about all we’d seen and done.

And then we reached the car.

Parked on asphalt in full July sun, windows sealed shut, our little Honda was a hot metal box.

“Why didn’t you park in the shade, Mom?” my daughter asked.

I took a deep breath. I had parked in the shade of a spindly loblolly when we arrived, but the sun had long since shifted.

“Look around,” I said. “There isn’t any shade.”

From years of southern living, I know how to cool a car. I opened the hatchback first, letting out a furnace blast of air. Next I started the engine, rolled down all the windows and flipped on the air conditioning. We stood on the blistering pavement outside the car, waiting until we could touch the seatbelt buckles and steering wheel without burning our fingers. Our smiles melted away.

With everyone finally strapped in, we started our drive back to Chapel Hill.

“I wish we could walk to the Museum of Life and Science,” my 5-year-old said wearily from the backseat.

“Yeah,” I said. “Me, too.”

Some people can walk to that museum, which is cool. But I don’t think my daughter was expressing a particular desire to live in Durham. What she is longing for are more strategic proximities, the sort of connectivity in our built environment that makes walking and biking easy and desirable, makes them the obvious choices.

Our family does a lot of walking. We regularly stroll through our suburban neighborhood in Chapel Hill. But ever since they were toddlers, our children have walked with us to destinations also: the grocery store, parks and bus stops. The choices are limited from our house in Dogwood Acres, but I’m glad we have a few. Walking’s good for you and the environment, of course. But walking is an excellent teacher, too.

It is perhaps the best teacher of natural history. The gravel road behind our house follows a classic Piedmont hill, long and gradual. We have walked up and down it countless times, pressing on over the years through crying and complaining. Now, at 4 and 5, the kids know it in an unconscious way. They automatically run down it joyously, legs and arms flapping, and walk back up with heads bent in determination.

In a similar way, they know Fan Branch, the creek that runs under Dogwood Acres Drive. While navigating carefully on foot the curvy, two-lane road, we always step into the weeds to peer down at the water level and occasionally to get in it. The kids have turned up salamanders and crawfish along the creek banks as well as tall-boy beer cans and fast-food bags.

“Who keeps throwing their trash here?” my daughter asked recently.

At bedtime the other night, my son wanted to know where Fan Branch starts. We vowed to follow it upstream to its origins this summer.

These walks to the store, the pizza joint and the park teach about the natural world, to be sure. But they also teach an important lesson about the body. Given the chance (and the infrastructure) your own stout legs can get you where you need to go and back again.

I am glad that we have a car and the resources to visit a Durham museum from our home in Chapel Hill. And I know walking by choice is not the same thing as walking without a choice. But there is a fluidity to walking that driving interrupts. Walking to and from a destination is like finishing a thought. I suppose outings book-ended by car rides can have their own rhythm. But how empowering it is for children if they – and not just their family cars – know the way.

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