School is starting up again, so here are some reasons and advice on how to get your kids riding to and from school. Whether they are new to bike riding or they are already experienced riders, there are lots of benefits to cycle-commuting to school including some that may not be obvious: increased brain activity, increased memory retention, and increased attention span.
We understand it can be difficult to get out of the house in the morning before school, so we have enlisted expert advice from Doug Detwiller from Sprockids. Doug is a school teacher and he developed Sprockids as a self-esteem / anger management program to help engage students who were having difficulty functioning in the traditional classroom setting. The program involves teaching mountain biking skills and other life skills to kids and youth.
Why ride to school?
image: Dasha Rosato
I'm sure you know the health benefits from riding and being active, but you may not know that kids who ride to school may actually have better concentration in class. A bike ride is a great way to start and end the school day.
Doug says that in starting his program, "the majority of the students were male, and many of them had a lot of penned up energy, anger, and emotions, making it very difficult for them to sit still and focus. The program helped give the kids confidence and an avenue to release energy and anger."
As a teacher, Doug experienced first hand how physical activity helped individuals prepare for the demands of the school day. He says, "my students who rode or walked to school arrived alert, calm, and mentally awake ready to learn." Just like us adults, young people get stressed and have all kinds of issues to deal with. Doug continues, "riding to school is a great stress release and it allows a physical activity to vent emotions."
Riding can also help kids sleep better at night, which also has direct benefits to their health, mental wellness, and ability to learn. In fact the Active Living Research Group has done extensive studies on the effects of activity on children in school which can be read here (PDF).
Riding to school can also help your child's teacher teach better as the kids may be more relaxed and ready to learn. There has also been growing research showing the direct impact of physical activity on academic performance. Kids who engaged in aerobic activities saw an increase in attention and memory retention, as well as mood and social engagement. Brain scans done at the University of Illinois show a dramatic increase in brain activity after 20 mins of exercise compared to 20 mins of sitting quietly. Research also shows an increase in neural brain activity in children who participated in an after school activity program compared to those kids who didn't. Research also suggests there is a decrease in neural brain activity when kids stop being active over time.
There are also the more practical and readily realized benefits to biking to school. In many cases, a bike trip is just as fast as driving the car in traffic and fighting the drop-off zone and/or parking lot crunch. Biking is also a way to get your kids outside to explore, and if you join them, you get your exercise, too, as well as some time to talk that isn't interfered with by a TV, video game, or mobile phone.
Tips to get kids riding
Some mornings it's hard to get the kids organized to eat breakfast, get dressed, and find their shoes. You might really want to get the kids riding, but can't figure out how logistically it can happen. Riding adds another bunch of 'things' you need to find, label with names and pack. It can be exhausting.
Doug agrees: "Getting kids organized in the morning can be a major challenge. As an adult I have my specific pack and gear that I ride with. These items are always organized together and hung up on a specific hanger ready to go at a moment's notice. Doing the same for one's kids makes the morning commute a lot easier."
If you need motivation for your kids to keep pedalling (especially if you live in a really hilly area, or some distance from the school), you could limit the number of times you ride per week so they don't get worn out. You could even drive part of the way to school and ride a shorter distance.
Gear they need
Get kids happy and keep them wanting to ride by ensuring they have an appropriate bike. It needs to fit them and not be too big, too small, or too heavy. Buying a new bike is always fun, but not necessary. If using the bike they already have, give it a wash and a safety check-up by you or a local bike shop). Put on a new bell or grips to add some excitement.
Protect their heads with a well fitting helmet. It's not just good practice, most municipalities and schools require them.
A bike lock is almost always necessary and bike lights not necessary but certainly a good idea.
Check It Out:
See our Back to School: Bike gear shopping list for more ideas and specific recommendations.
Safety and security
Safety is an issue that all parents worry about. Accept that you can't control everything and take control of the most important safety items you do control: gear, riding ability, and route.
Again, make sure your child's bike fits and works properly. A helmet works when it is fitted and worn correctly, so take the time to teach your child how to put it on and wear it right; the helmet shouldn't be flopping off to the side or tilting too forward or back (or be on backwards!).
Practice bike skills after school or on weekends to get their abilities and confidence up. Then teach the road rules and scout the most practical and safe route before riding to and from school.
What age should your child be before they can be trusted to understand the road rules enough to ride to school? As a parent you will need to be the judge as to whether or not they are street smart. Before sending them off, check the road rules in your area and take advantage of sidewalks/footpaths; in some states and countries it is legal for kids to ride on the footpath.
Kids need not ride alone, but that doesn't mean you have to always go with them. Doug suggests that you could organize a group of parents and a schedule of who would ride with the children each day. "At designated spots, the children would meet the group and join them on their journey to school. Kind of like the school bus schedule, but with bikes."
Once at school, the bike needs to be locked up. Make sure you have a good lock your child can use. Consider whether a key lock or a combination lock is best for your child - are they more likely to forget the code or lose the key?
As a parent of younger riders, I am a big fan of high visibility vests. With them, cars have a greater chance of seeing little riders if they happen to accidentally go off the footpath or past a driveway when a car is reversing. The company Hey Reflect'o makes vests with fun, funky patterns in kid sizes - and adult sizes so you can be seen and also look cool alongside your kids.
Make your child and the bike as visible as possible by adding front and rear lights. Older kids may not be too keen on high-vis vests, but there's usually no problem with lights - just remind them to turn them off and on.
Cycling specific clothes aren't necessary, but if the school is a fair distance from home and there's a chance kids will get sweaty, muddy, or wet, opt for comfortable, casual clothes and pack a school uniform or other clothes to change into at school.
Another concern is kids having to deal with large, heavy school backpacks that can be difficult to ride and manuever with. First, take it as an opportunity to be tactical and selective about what your child carries in order to reduce weight. Next, if you ride alongside your child, carry it for them or use your child bike trailer (the one you had when they were a toddler) to carry it. The trailer is especially good if you have more than one child or when it's time to shuttle those larger, special school projects.
Okay parents and kids, it's time to put 'Pokemon Go' aside and and go riding to school.