Healthy communities, healthy schools

Making the nature-nurture connection

Imagine walking to school on an autumn morning through a mixed growth forest of alders, Douglas fir and cedar trees: if you are quiet, you can hear leaves rustling, and the late-season music of wrens and towhees. The sun is lower on the horizon than in summer, casting shadows on the alders’ silver bark and silhouette of deer fern and salal growing beneath the trees. The air is cool and tinged with the sharp scent of cedar, inviting you to breath deeply as you move along toward the start of your day.

If you are a student at the new, about-to-open Kingston High School, this scenario could soon be part of your daily learning experience. If you live in Kingston (whatever your age), you might one day find yourself traveling along a broad network of non-motorized trails to shop, visit friends, or attend a community event at the new school complex.

The opening of Kingston High School marks a watershed moment in the Kingston community’s trail vision. The school, built in the middle of an extremely sensitive ecological area, is at the center of a complex landscape puzzle, with trail access that could easily provide links between Gordon Elementary, Kingston Middle School, Spectrum Community School, and Stillwaters Education Environmental Center, as well as with the Carpenter Lake watershed, salt marsh, Kingston’s downtown core, and surrounding residential neighborhoods.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for those kids to have a conscious, conscientious, hands-on education in nature,” noted Naomi Maasberg, executive director of Stillwaters. “Not just science, but all subjects. Plus they will have the indirect, constant education of being in nature.”

Beyond their educational potential, walking trails offer students health benefits. “With trails around their schools, kids don’t have to think about fitness, they just do it,” said Lynn Schornn, Kingston resident and physical therapist.

As physical education teacher at West Sound Academy, Schornn sees first hand the effects of car-centric, sedentary lifestyles. “With budget cuts in public school for things like physical education, excessive food intake, and minimal exercise among kids that aren’t into team sports, the health of kids is really suffering. Obesity and Type II diabetes are big problems. In Europe, people walk more, and their general fitness levels are better.”

Schornn recalled that in Holland, where she once lived, school officials didn’t pay for bus service. “People walked, or biked. They found other ways to get their kids to school. The bus wasn’t an option.”

The trails have sport possibilities as well. North Kitsap School District board members Ed Strickland and Tom Anderson – spotted walking the trails around the high school recently – agree that expanding them is a good idea.

“There are almost 80 acres here,” noted Strickland. “That gives us the potential to have a world class cross country course.”

Beyond basic fitness and sport, the question of how the trails might integrate the new school into the surrounding habitat raises a bigger issue: community wellness.

“Building trails is about creating community,” Schornn added, “not only for youth, but for everyone.”

As the construction dust settles, and Kingston High opens its doors to the first of many generations, the community has an opportunity to link the school with the diverse ecosystem that surrounds it. Doing so will provide social and ecological connections for youth, elders and those in mid-life. Trails may not solve our greatest human ills, but they do offer a pathway to wellness through the community of nature, of which we are a part.

Human health and walkable communities: fast facts

A 1999 National Health & Nutrition Survey indicated that 61 percent of American adults are either overweight or obese (source: A 2003 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Report said that 15 percent of all young people between six and 19 years of age are overweight (source:

A 1996 Surgeon General’s Report stated that moderate but consistent exercise – such as 30 minutes of brisk walking or cycling most days of the week – yields significant health benefits (source:

A recent Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada study found a positive correlation between physical exercise and children’s academic performance, with exercise resulting in improved concentration and memory, and in some cases, elevated mood (source:

According to a 1999 U.S. Centers for Disease control study in 1969 two-thirds (66 percent) of all school children walked or rode their bikes to school. In 1999, less than 10 percent did so. In the same study, 55 percent of parents noted distance as the main reason why their children did not walk or bike, followed by 40 percent noting traffic danger as their primary concern. See for more information.

So … what about safety?

Safe Routes to School programs are being implemented across the U.S. in response to growing recognition of the relationships between learning and exercise, and concerns about pedestrian safety. Safe Routes to School employs multiple strategies to get children walking and biking to school, including providing traffic safety education, encouraging parents to accompany kids in “walking school buses” and supporting civic activism: getting government agencies to fix broken lights, paint crosswalks and put in sidewalks. The program is currently being implemented in Suquamish.

To learn more about safety for kids, go to or Kids Walk to School at For more about creating a bike and pedestrian-friendly community see the National Center for Bicycling and Walking at

If you build it they will come

When Carolina Veenstra’s son, Hank, was old enough to ride his bike to school, she wanted him to have that opportunity. But “rush hour” at Gordon Elementary School in Kingston was a scary thing to behold, with no crosswalk markings, a lot of cars, and only a gravel path alongside the road for kids to follow (and it was across the road from the school entrance, requiring kids to cross traffic twice to get to school). So she talked to the Gordon PTA, gathered a group of interested parents, and together, using donated time and materials, they installed a sidewalk so students from nearby neighborhoods could walk safely.

“People are using it,” said Veenstra. “And it’s having a snowball effect, especially in good weather. Once people know about something like this, they use it.”

For an encore, Veenstra hopes to see a pedestrian walkway added alongside the bus access road connecting Gordon to Kingston High School: doing so will provide a quick walking route for people who want to attend sport and cultural events at the high school, and allow them to leave their cars at home.

“All it would take is striping,” she said, “and adding a pedestrian gate at the access road entrance.”

North Kitsap School Board member Ed Strickland supports the idea. Do you? Contact the Gordon Elementary PTA at (360) 394-6700 to volunteer or register your opinion.