RIVERSIDE, Calif. -

Elementary and middle school students throughout Riverside County today will forgo riding to school in favor of walking to mark ``International Walk to School Day'' part of an effort to promote youth exercise and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

``It is a simple thing that can have a very positive impact on everyone's health,'' said Dr. Cameron Kaiser, the county's public health officer. ``Do it once, and it can become a habit.''

Thousands of youngsters from more than 60 schools are expected to take part in the annual event, during which parents and community-based volunteers form ``walking school buses'' to shepherd children to their schools, according to the Riverside County Department of Public Health, one of the agencies organizing the event.

Officials said that in some locations, public safety personnel will provide escorts, and safety mascots, such as the Riverside Police Department's ``Buckle Bear,'' will provide sidewalk entertainment. Elected officials in various locations will also be taking part.

   The following districts have schools that have signed on:

   -- Alvord Unified School District;

   -- Beaumont Unified School District;

   -- Coachella Unified School District;

   -- Corona-Norco Unified School District;

   -- Desert Sands Unified School District;

   -- Hemet Unified School District;

   -- Jurupa Unified School District;

   -- Lake Elsinore Unified School District;

   -- Menifee Unified School District;

   -- Moreno Valley Unified School District;

   -- Palm Springs Unified School District;

   -- Perris Unified School District;

   -- Riverside Unified School District; and

   -- Romoland Unified School District.

   

Children from the private All Saints Carden Academy in Riverside are also slated to participate.

According to organizers, walking programs promote reduced childhood obesity and highlight the importance of pedestrian access and safety.

Over the next 12 months, the county will be holding events that highlight the importance of ``sustainable walking and biking programs,'' said Marsie Huling, with the Department of Public Health.