The beginning of a new school year represents a fresh start – new classes, new people and opportunities. Like the beginning of a new year, back-to-school can be the perfect time to set goals and resolutions. Why not make one of them becoming a bike commuter—however the school year looks?
- Kaia, Chloe & Peter - the DRW Bike Club
Riding a bike teaches kids skills and has many advantages. Numerous health benefits first come to mind: muscle strength, improved coordination and balance and cardiovascular health, to name a few. In the tech driven world of today, kids need more physical activity. Especially in the morning, biking is an awesome way to exercise and to get the blood flowing. By the time kids start the school day, they'll be energized, more focused, and ready to go. Who doesn't feel more alert and mentally engaged after a good morning workout?
Biking gives kids a sense of freedom in the outdoors. When I gave my daughters the OK to ride around the neighborhood and explore on their own, a new world opened up for them. This past summer when I caught myself telling them, "Be back by dark," some of my fondest memories were reawakened of a time when I cruised through the neighborhood on my BMX as a kid. I lived too far from my school to commute, but often rode for as long as my parents allowed.
Biking also helps kids to build orientation skills. Learning directions and routes deepens an awareness of their surroundings. I was dumbfounded the first time I asked my sixthth grade class if they knew directions to their homes. Most knew their address, maybe a few knew landmarks along the way, but very few knew an actual route home. Why? None of them rode their bikes! Bend is one of the bike-friendliest cities in the United States. With over 300 miles of bike lanes in the city and steadily growing, an easy route to school is almost a guarantee.
Keep it Green
Bicycle commuting can also open the door to conversations about the environment, as commuter cyclists are contributing to less traffic and fewer pollutants. Caring for Central Oregon's environment is important, and we want the next generation to be good stewards of the earth. Who knows, maybe kids will delay the desire to drive when they are old enough, having experienced the freedom and ease of the bike. Most older kids really don't need a car to get to high school and just think of the car insurance savings! At the very least, cycling to school saves the time and headache of waiting in the carpool lines.
Of course, we have to consider certain factors about kids riding on their own. Most importantly is age. Building positive habits while kids are young is best, although younger kids may need incentives and more oversight.
Biking together as a family, whether through the neighborhood or to a park or trail, provides time together and gets kids comfortable on the bike. Playing games, stopping for a picnic, or getting ice cream along the way can make the experience more enjoyable. Before you cut them loose on their own, find the safest route and ride it together to make sure they're comfortable, or, if they are young, ride with them every day. If possible, consider a bike train where one adult rides with a group of kids.
No matter the age, students usually enjoy time with friends. One idea is to help them form a bike club. Although they may be ready to ride solo, a partner or group is probably best until they get older.
Gear them up!
Helmets are mandatory; reflectors too, if they ride near dark. Do the brakes work? Are the handlebars straight? Do the tires have plenty of air? Maybe even add a basket for carrying gear, or a bell on the front (even if they ring it obnoxiously).
This checklist offers a chance for kids to learn yet another skill – bike maintenance. As they learn how to maintain their bikes, older kids can take on more responsibility, even carrying extra tubes, tools and necessities. Chances are they will begin to bike solo and explore longer routes as they become more comfortable, where being able to handle a puncture is crucial.
The reality is students may not be able to bike to class every day, and may be studying at home. Those natural factors such as proximity to school, weather, the length of days and waking up late will always be there to squash the morning or afternoon joyride. But for much of the year, biking can be an adventure, a good excuse for exercise, and a chance to keep one more car off the road.
Biking skills and habits become ingrained in kids and hopefully will continue into adulthood. If lucky, they may develop a lifelong love for cycling. Most importantly, they will cultivate a resilient mindset, a sense of empowerment, and a greater independence that goes way beyond just biking to school.
Explore School Commuting
Learn more about Commute Options whose mission is promoting safer, healthier and more livable communities through smart transportation options. Its program, Safe Routes to School encourages and educates children and parents on the benefits and safety of biking and walking to school, and creates fun, convenient, and safe opportunities to do so. SRTS created a unique map for each elementary school to show the best route and meeting locations on the way. Many schools also have a "walking school bus" that organizes a group walking or biking commute to school.
Check it out: commuteoptions.org/walking-school-bus/