How to Organize a Walking School Bus

A Walking School Bus (WSB) is a simple strategy to reduce the number of cars traveling to and from school and provide families with an option of a safe and active trip for the school journey. Volunteer parents act as Walking School Bus leaders, possibly taking a shift or two per week. As WSB leaders, they walk a designated route at a scheduled time for the trip to and from school, picking up or dropping off children along the way.

Walking school buses help families share in the daily responsibility of transporting children to and from school. A walking school bus provides an opportunity to establish stronger relationships with other families in the neighbourhood and can help to reduce the volume of traffic at the school. Children develop friendships, learn and practice traffic safety skills, and enjoy active transportation daily. The key to organizing a successful Walking School Bus is flexibility, responsibility, and open communication between families.

Starting simple can be important in building momentum for a program that will be successful in the long term. With a few phone calls to friends you can start an informal walking bus in your own neighbourhood. It may be best to begin with one or two neighbourhood groups before initiating a larger school wide program. Alternatively, you may choose to coordinate a more ambitious project in your community, initiating Walking School Buses from different neighbourhoods within the school catchment area.

A Walking School Bus group, regardless of whether it is formal or informal, must establish a safe route, provide appropriate adult supervision and include pedestrian safety education for the WSB leaders and children involved.

Main organizational elements:

Walking School Bus options and minimum requirements

There are three different models of Walking School Buses

  1. WSB that leaves from one location e.g. a local park or church (where families walking or those arriving by car can drop children off), the lobby of an apartment building or the entrance to a townhouse complex.
  2. A neighbourhood WSB with pick-up ‘bus stops’ along the route.
  3. A neighbourhood WSB which picks up children from their individual homes.

Every formal Walking School Bus operates with the following minimum requirements

  • Registration of children with the agreement of their parents.
  • Letter of agreement for volunteer bus leader(s).
  • Traffic safety education that includes pedestrian safety and visibility awareness.
  • An established WSB Best Route to School.
  • Emergency contact phone number list.

Step-by-step guide to organizing Walking School Buses in your school neighbourhood

1. Getting started

If you choose a school based process, you will need a school WSB coordinator to initiate the program and to facilitate communications between neighbourhood groups and the school PAC and administration.

Begin by sending information home as part of a school or PAC newsletter. Briefly describe the benefits of walking all or partway to school and provide a simple description of how a WSB operates. You may also post this information on your school website. Provide email or phone contact information for families who want more information.

Set a date and invite interested families and potential volunteers to an organizing meeting at the school.

2. WSB information meeting

General information to include in this meeting

Answering Walking School Bus FAQ’s:

Q. I don’t live near any of the Walking School Bus routes. How can my children be part of this program?

A. Our school would love to expand the program and develop more routes. If you would like to volunteer once or twice each week, perhaps we can consider starting a route in your area. If you live at a distance from the school, consider dropping your children off at one of the ‘bus stops’ on an established route so your children can still participate in the program.

Q. Can kindergarten children participate in this program?

A. Yes! If kindergarten students attend school during a morning or an afternoon session, these students will only be able to walk one way with the WSB. You may wish to accompany the WSB until your child is comfortable with the system. If it is necessary to have kindergarten children escorted right to class, you need to consider who will be responsible for taking your child to the classroom.

Q. How many children can be on a walking school bus?

A. If the group is larger than six or seven children a parent or senior student might walk at the back of the bus to observe the children’s behavior and safety. The number of volunteer WSB leaders required for each bus will depend on the traffic environment, the number of children on the bus and the age of the students involved.

Q. How can we keep our walking school bus safe and visible in traffic?

A. Parents who are WSB leaders and those at the back of a walking school bus can wear reflective safety vests. Children should wear bright coloured accessories and reflective materials attached to coats or backpacks.

Q. How will my child get their musical instrument or heavy project to school?

A: A walking school bus might consider the use of a wagon for these purposes. All children however are responsible for their own backpacks.

Guidelines for WSB information meeting:

  • Have copies of a your school catchment area map available.
  • If your school has already established a Best Routes to School map, make sure this document is available to consult during the meeting.
  • Discuss Best Route planning and the need to consider traffic safety concerns, personal security issues, choosing the safest crossing places, etc. See Developing Best  Walking School Bus Routes guidelines
  • Discuss Pedestrian Education and the need to ensure that WSB leaders and all walkers in the group are familiar with and follow traffic safety rules. A WSB leader has no power to stop traffic. He or she must obey all the traffic signs and laws, and they must model and teach safe pedestrian behaviours.
  • The size of the Walking School Bus depends on the age of the children and the road and traffic environment where the group is walking. Broad guidelines have been established by the U.S. National Centre for Safe Routes to School. They suggest that for children 4 to 6 years of age, one adult per three children is ideal. For students ages 7 to 9, one adult for six children is advisable. For children 10 and over you can have fewer adults, but the size of the group should still be small enough to be safe as you walk along together.
  • In your communication, be positive and reinforce that a Walking School Bus is for all children, regardless of whether their parents are able to share in day to day operations. In some cases parents who cannot volunteer for the walk to or from school take on other organizing tasks.
  • Details on organization and sample rules and expectations are provided and discussed. Each neighbourhood walking school bus can determine their own policies to suit their group of families without compromising safety but respecting individual family needs and expectations.
  • It is useful to provide the school office with a current master list of all WSB participants: volunteer parents, children on the bus, and emergency contact numbers for these students. WSB routes should also be included with this information..
  • A Walking School Bus can be named and celebrated.

Planning for Neighbourhood Walking School Bus Groups

  • It can be useful to have participants sit in neighbourhood groups.
  • Invite a volunteer to act as contact parent for each neighbourhood. This person will be responsible for local WSB organization. Provide them with all the communication tools required.
  • Each group should organize a local neighbourhood meeting for parents and children. At this meeting the designated WSB route can be decided. As well specific route policies, schedules, rules, communication and safety issues for that group can be discussed.

3. Neighbourhood WSB organization meeting

Each neighbourhood group should organize a local meeting for parents and children who will be involved with the WSB in their area.

Guidelines for Neighbourhood WSB planning meeting

  • Distribute copies of your proposed WSB route map, and use them for marking meeting places and/or bus stops.
  • Create a list of participating families, students and volunteer bus leaders. This list should include names of parents, addresses, grade levels of children, along with family email and telephone numbers. Ensure that this list remains confidential. It should only be shared with others in your group and kept on file at the school office.
  • Decide on a back-up plan for situations when a parent or guardian is not at home, or at the drop-off location, when a child returns from school on the WSB. Every family must provide the name of a responsible adult, their telephone number and address, This information should be included on the WSB emergency contact list.
  • Identify alternate WSB leaders and develop a list of these individuals. Scheduled Walking School Bus leaders must notify parents if they are unable to walk with the bus and there is no alternative WSB leader available to take the shift.
  • Ensure that all parents and children are familiar with the rules for your WSB. Explain how the WSB operates in the morning and after school. Make changes if necessary in response to concerns or issues that arise at this meeting.
  • Decide if a bus leader needs a whistle. If so, children will need to learn to stop when the whistle is blown and immediately turn and listen to the bus leader.
  • Distribute pledge and permission sheets for students and parents to read and sign.
  • Prototype letters for teachers may be distributed, or sent via email, so that parents can pass this correspondence along to their children’s classroom teacher. The letter explains that a child is involved with a Walking School Bus group, and cannot be kept late after school without prior notice to the child’s parent.
  • Set a starting date, bus stop locations and pick-up times for your WSB. It may take a few days to get the timing right.
  • Determine rules for carrying backpacks or school projects. If your WSB uses a walking school bus wagon, decide what will be carried in this wagon. You might want to transport larger school projects, baking for special events, musical instruments, sports equipment, etc. in the wagon. If there is room, you may also be willing to include student backpacks or book bags.

4. WSB Route walk

Parents of the WSB participants should plan for and walk the proposed route. If best routes to the school have been identified, these should be considered as the first option for the WSB route. When determining the route, follow the guidelines for choosing Developing Best Walking School Bus Routes.

5. Celebration launch day!

After a few weeks of operation, you may wish to organize a launch of your WSB program.

  • In order to create a festive atmosphere you may wish to include balloons, banners, even a marching band. Let the neighbourhood and local traffic see you in action!
  • You could invite local dignitaries or sports celebratories such as local youth team members.
  • Combine your launch with other special events that relate to your program: International Walk to School Week (iwalk), February Fitness, Earth Day, etc.

6. Maintain your WSB program

Re-introduce the WSB program each year, or provide for continuity.

  • Set up a WSB information section on a school bulletin board and/or send out a PAC newsletter to inform parents about the WSB program. You may wish to outline the routes, and invite others to join these groups, or to start their own WSB.
  • Ask students to draw and write about their experience as part of a WSB.
  • Use the school bulletin board or newsletter to include information to outline the many benefits of walking and biking to school. The positive benefits for student health and children’s requirements for daily physical activity along with the positive effects on air quality, and traffic safety can be explored.
  • Using the HASTE MyTravel tool, track the emissions reductions that your group has achieved in a semester or a school year of WSB participation.
  • Organize special event days to promote walking for all students at the school.
  • Start a new school term with a re-acquaintance party. Invite new families in your neighbourhood to attend.
  • You may wish to start the term with the distribution of a new information and registration package, which would include the routes of the current buses, and the relevant documents along with an invitation to new families to consider joining a WSB, or starting one in their own area.

Create events and opportunities to celebrate and recognize student and volunteer parent involvement:

  • WSB participants can be given passports to collect stamps on days when they go to school with the WSB. These stamps might be earned when children learn a new traffic safety rule, or demonstrate good judgment at a crosswalk.
  • Children’s names can be entered into a draw when they have walked a certain number of times with the WSB. This process might culminate in a grand draw at the end of the semester or school year. Ideas for prizes: passes to the local recreation centre, swimming pool or skating rink.
  • Regularly thank volunteers for their work and effort.
  • Have an end-of-term get together party for all the WSB participants.

Other organizational details:

Daily operations of a Walking School Bus

  • Children are picked up on the street outside their house or at a designated walking school bus stop at specified times. Children never go into other people’s homes.
  • The walking school bus always follows the same route.
  • Children are escorted into the schoolyard. WSB leaders should not leave children unattended on the school site if they are to be met by a teacher, or escorted to a classroom.
  • Designate a permanent gathering place in the school, or in the schoolyard. This can become the Walking School Bus Meeting Place.
  • After school, the bus waits for a designated time before leaving for the trip home.
  • Some schools have an announcement made over the PA system a few minutes before the WSBs leave the school to remind students to go to the designated meeting place.
  • Parents or caregivers must be home when their children arrive on the bus. A back-up plan must be in place for emergencies.

Creating an identity for your Walking School Bus group

  • Neighbourhood groups may select a name and/or a colour for their ‘bus’, and establish some unique features
  • Decide if WSB participants should wear identifiers such as hats, reflective vests, or brightly coloured scarves.
  • Footsteps can be chalked or painted (only with permission!) on the sidewalk along the route. Handmade signs can be posted temporarily, in protective plastic, to mark ‘bus stops’, or to identify the route you take.
  • Your group may choose a safety song or slogan; children may wish to make up poems or chants.
  • At the Walking School Bus Meeting Place in the school, students may wish to design a logo, or a poster indicating that this is where their WSB meets each afternoon.
  • Make the walking group a fun and exciting experience: play I Spy! or 20 questions, sing or play word or observation games. Make this an opportunity for the children to enjoy their time together as they walk to and from their school each day.

Rules and policies to consider when organizing your Walking School Bus

  • Students must arrive at the designated ‘bus stop’ or meeting location on time. The bus will wait a set time before leaving. If a child misses the bus, and does not meet up with the group, the parent or caregiver is responsible for taking this student to school.
  • If students are late (longer than 5 minutes) for the WSB afternoon departure from school, the WSB leader should inform the school. These students must know to report to the school office so that parents or caregivers can be notified and arrangements made for the child’s safe return home.
  • If there is no one waiting for a child at home or at the drop off ‘bus stop’ the WSB leader must follow a back-up plan. Waiting for the missing parent will cause other parents to be anxious if the WSB is late.
  • If a child is absent because of illness, change of plans, or an appointment, the WSB leader must be informed.
  • Establish guidelines for children’s behaviour. For example, if a child misbehaves, he or she will receive a warning and a phone call will be made to the parent or caregiver. If the student misbehaves again, he or she will be off the bus for a certain length of time. Depending on the circumstance, this child may or may not be allowed to return to the group.
  • If a child is consistently late or doesn’t show up when expected, or if a parent is consistently not at home when the school bus arrives after school, the child may not be able to continue to participate.
  • Rules in the WSB contract are to be signed by parents and children.
  • Each WSB leader and parent must review traffic safety rules and specific WSB expectations with the children.
  • Children should walk in pairs so that they have a buddy to watch out for, and to minimize the length of the bus. On a rural road, it may be necessary for students to walk single file.
  • Volunteer WSB leaders must always model safe pedestrian practices.

Expectations for WSB participants’ behaviour

WSB participants must:
  • Obey all traffic rules and signs. When crossing, check for yourself each time you step into the street, and ensure that it is safe to cross.
  • Stay with the group, particularly when crossing the street. The only exception to this rule is if it is not safe to proceed with the group.
  • Know that there is no pushing, shoving or fooling around while walking or waiting.
  • Be aware that they must never run across a street.
  • Attend to the walking school bus leader at all times. Follow their instructions and respond to their requests.
  • Watch out for each other and respect neighbourhood property.

Liability issues

In speaking with parents, liability is often raised as a concern. Check with your school district about any specific policy related to parent volunteers as insurance coverage via the British Columbia Schools Protection Program may be available for qualifying initiatives. Another alternative for home owners would be the personal liability protection afforded under their home insurance coverage. In any case, it should be noted that the liability risks associated with walking school bus and bicycle train programs are low and are far outweighed by the benefits to the children involved.

Regarding school-sanctioned programs, some schools have a policy that requires adults who volunteer in the school to complete a criminal record check. Decide whether or not you will to establish this as a requirement for WSB volunteers. Parents in most school communities know each other fairly well, so this may not be deemed necessary for your program.