Students participating in the Walking School Bus program walk the last leg to school.
"So, a walking school bus runs just like a regular bus - except there are no wheels," says program director Betsy Critchfield. Critchfield says children who live more than a mile away from school will get off the bus for the last mile stretch of the journey, and be escorted the rest of the way along a pre-arranged route.
Critchfield says the Walking School Bus concept originated in Australia about 20 years ago, then spread to Canada and to the U.S. With about 14 percent of Maine children classed as obese, there's a clear need for something to be done.
"And it really is a program to increase physical activity for children, to reach that one hour of recommended daily exercise, to reduce fossil fuel consumption and pollution," Critchfield says.
The concept is already gaining traction in other Maine communities, which have set up their own "walk to school" programs - albeit on a more occasional basis.
On a recent Friday morning in Brunswick, several school buses pull over in a parking lot some distance from their usual destinations. Dozens of school children alight and, bundled up against the cold, they begin the rest of their journey on foot, supervised by teachers and parent volunteers.
"I'm Melissa Fochesato. I'm a mom first of all and I'm the director of the Healthy Maine Partnership that serves Brunswick."
Fochesato helps organize this once-a-month initiative, which involves children at Brunswick's two elementary schools.
"I think people think of a lot barriers to walking to school until they actually do it and see how much fun it is," Fochesato says. "And so from a health perspective, the more stuff we can get in during the day the healthier we're going to be. And that's why we're here."
"Good morning. Good morning. Let's go!" says Lyn D'Agostino, who is helping to corral the little ones. D'Agostino is a physical education teacher at Harriet Beecher Stowe elementary - which is about half-a-mile's walk away.
"It"s great to get people moving," she says. "There's a connection with studies and kids being ready to learn first thing in the morning after activity."
"Yeah it's pretty fun," says Liberty Krauss, a fifth-grader at Harriet Beecher Stowe. Krauss says she walcomes the walk "because most of the time you're just sitting on a bus for a long time, and this gets you to, like, exercise, to, like, walk to school."
Classmates Patrick Masse and Hannah Litezell agree. Masse says the walk gives him more time to socialize, "mostly 'cause I can walk with my friends and talk with them on the way to school."
Tom Porter: "Do you feel better when you get to school when you've walked there? Do you feel more energetic?"
Patrick Masse: "I probably feel less energetic 'cause I've wasted the energy."
Hannah Litezell: "I think kids need a littel more exercise than they're getting. I think it's good to have a day where we can walk a little bit, so, yeah."
The city of Portland, meanwhile, is looking for 50 adult volunteers to accommodate the roughly 500 children who initially take part in the Walking School Bus initiative. Program Director Critchfield hopes that it could eventually be expanded to all 10 of the city's public schools.
Photos courtesy of the Portland Walking School Bus Program.