By Regina Hope Sinsky
Kids can ride their bikes to school. They can ride their bikes after school. But there aren’t many opportunities for kids to ride during school. With a few exceptions.
After noticing a swarm of tricycles on a Head Start campus in the Mission, I contacted the child development experts at San Francisco State University to see why they felt bikes were so important. Important enough that the bikes were the sole pieces of playground equipment on the tiny lot. The SFSU experts invited me to Children’s Campus where I learned that bikes can play a critical role in early childhood development.
“Being active at an early development stage is key to active adulthood, and that includes being an active bike rider,” says Tracy Farstad, the Director of Children’s Campus at SFSU.
It’s a warm, sunny day so we enjoy a bounce on the soft, rubber bike path that circumscribes the playground. Unlike the Mission Head Start campus, this playground has wooden play structures and a water play area. But the star of the playground is the bike path. Kids are all over it.
“I’m really excited about this path,” says Farstad, as I pretend to take a spill (this is apparently only hilarious to me and one small boy). “Kids fall on their bikes but get right back up. The rubber gives them more confidence than concrete. As they get more practice they fall less. Having fun on a bike early is really important because it means you’re more likely to do it as you get older.”
Having fun while riding as a child is critical, but having access to a bike is obviously the most important first step. That includes having bikes on school grounds. Increasingly, centers like the Children’s Campus are the places where children, even toddlers, get their first bike experiences.
“Usually parents were the ones to get kids on their first bikes,” she says. “Today as more kids enter group care at younger ages, we become the ones getting them on bikes. We’re here for a lot of firsts.” Farstad mentions that many children take their first steps in daycare. While the first bike may be encountered in childcare, it’s up to the parents to keep the wheels turning.
Farstad explains that perhaps the best lesson bikes can teach young children is autonomy. “Bikes strengthen motor skills and and self reliance. You don’t need someone to push your or catch you, like a swing or a slide. Kids just jump on a tricycle and start pedaling.” She explains that even children with physical disabilities enjoy a sense of freedom on specialized bikes.
Bikes give kids an early handle on communication skills. The children learn hand signs to signal their turns and about how lights tell them to stop and go. This will give them confidence when they take to the real streets as they get older.
As I leave the center, two little girls beg to show me their bike skills. I watch as they speed around the rubber bike path with all their might. “Are you still watching?! Are you taking a picture of this?” one of the girls shouts as she rounds the far corner, taking her tricycle on two wheels.
The children in SFSU Head Start programs are lucky to have these bikes. After elementary school, our access to bikes as Americans drops considerably. Less than half (46%) of Americans 16 and older have regular access to a bike, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2008 National Survey of Bicyclist and Pedestrian Attitudes and Behavior. Most school youth sports programs do not include bikes. This could explain not only why so few women, and people in general, stay on bikes past childhood.
“You’ve got football, soccer, track, swimming, but no bikes,” Farstad had mentioned back at the center. “High schools don’t have bike clubs. That’s where I see the disconnect. The opportunity to get back on a bike after early childhood doesn’t resurface until adulthood when you have access to programs like Try Girl Tri and local bike clubs.” And groups like Team In Training, I think to myself.
In an increasingly bike-friendly city like San Francisco, a great opportunity for elementary and middle school children is YBike, offered through the Presidio Community YMCA at nine middle schools and one elementary school in the SFUSD.
Unlike some school sports that are divided by gender, bike programs are typically coed. Ben Caldwell, the Director of Bicycle Programs for YBike, says their ridership is split 50/50 between boys and girls.
“We notice no difference in ability or desire to ride in all of our age groups,” Caldwell says. “At least half of our program is composed of girls. We do run a girls-only after school program at Hoover Middle where we had a little trouble with girls’ numbers. That did encourage participation.”
So what happens when kids leave the safety of assisted bike programs like YBike?
“I think the major reason we don’t see more kids riding is because our streets are not anywhere near as safe as they need to be,” says Caldwell.
This is where the bike coalitions come in. Along with Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, there are five coalitions in the Bay Area: East Bay, Silicon Valley, Sonoma County, Marin County, and San Francisco that are working to make streets safer for people biking. San Francisco’s Safe Routes to School program was launched last year to encourage students and their families to safely walk and bike to school. A total of 15 schools are participating this school year. The Safe Routes to School program is hosting the annual Walk to School Day, on October 6, 2010. To find out how you can get involved, checkout http://sfsaferoutestoschool.org/.