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How a single school bike club spread to other schools in the neighborhood due to an energetic network of parent cycling champions.
For the last three years, I’ve helped lead the popular After School Bike Club at my children’s school. This program all started when another bike-loving parent and I were looking for a fun way to help build a stronger bike culture in our neighborhood.
At the time, my daughter was taking curriculum-based Swim to Survive classes. These swimming classes are more drowning prevention than stroke development, but it got us thinking that if swimming is taught at school, biking could and should be too.
My friend looked into the legalities of running a bike club on school property – we were able to leverage the insurance plan the parent council carried for the downhill ski club – and we started thinking about curriculum for our first eight-week club. That first year the club was offered for grades one, two, and three since we needed to stay on school property, which was quite small, and we thought older kids might get restless with that limitation. Our goal was to offer a place where kids who didn’t know how to bike could learn to and where kids who already knew how to bike could develop more skills. We hoped that parents would bike with their kids to school on Bike Club days and experience riding to a destination under family supervision.
What we weren’t prepared for was the wild popularity of the club. That first year, 40 kids signed up. Although we had enlisted other parent volunteers, we quickly realized that this was too many kids for one class. That year we divided the group in two and held two eight-week sessions.
Looking over an After School Toolkit that we helped a School Travel Planning Facilitator put together after that first year, I can see how young our kids were when we wrote it. We had recommended encouraging all kids to bike for half an hour and then, should anyone want to play on the monkey bars or make sand castles, they would be free to do other activities while the volunteers worked more closely with the kids still wanting to ride bikes. Activities included having the kids clean their chains, find punctures in inner tubes, and practice hand signaling and other activities for the final half hour. While our kindergarten-aged kids in the After School Bike Club twice a week needed options for when they weren’t interested, after the first year we encouraged kids to bike the whole time.
Realizing that two eight-week sessions, while awesome, was a lot to ask of volunteers (including ourselves), we held one four-week session the second year, this time just for kids in grades one and two.
The more limited age range was an attempt to keep the class sizes more reasonable. Because we had to cap enrollment the year before, and some families who didn’t sign up right away were unable to participate. This time around our note home read, “All children of parent volunteers will be guaranteed a spot in bike club.” As you may imagine, we had lots of volunteers that year.
In our third year, with lighter work schedules and feeling that four weeks was too short for the kids to really feel like they were part of a vibrant, kid-centered bike culture, we expanded to six weeks, for grades one and two again. We discovered that this was just the right amount of time.
With lots of parent volunteers, the kids could divide themselves into groups, led by the parent volunteer they were most comfortable with, who went around to different stations, practicing skills. With this structure, we had time and space for kids to learn to ride bikes while the more advanced could practice other skills. We also were able to break cycling skills down and take time to teach the basics like stopping. Have you ever noticed how much kids love to sit on their seats while they stop, even if it means they topple over to one side?
After the success of running the bike club at our kids’ school we began telling other parents about the kids riding to school with their parents, filling up our bike racks, and having fun riding after school. Before we knew it, there was a network of parent cycling champions at four different schools in our neighborhood, each wanting to run some kind of bike programming at their children’s school.
As a group we would meet for coffee and talk about what would work at different schools. All our children were eight or under. One parent was keen to hold a bike rodeo and planned to recruit older kids to help with stations. He also wanted to put together a bike rodeo kit that could be shared among the different schools and stored at our community bike sharing hub, RightBike. Another parent tied classroom curriculum with a ride to school for everyone and some bike-related activities in the yard during mornings. And another parent wanted to start an After School Bike Club at her daughters’ school.
I vividly remember the excitement of our first coffee meeting, the connections and collaborations. Meeting with other parent cycling champions, even just once or twice a year and reaching out over email in between builds solidarity and support and creates confidence. Each of those parents went on to run really successful programs at their schools, engaging many children and families across our neighborhood.
This past winter, another parent volunteer with a son in junior kindergarten, began looking into starting bike programming at his son’s school. After consolidating our collective resources for him, I realized that we should put them all in one place so that the next interested parent volunteer or teacher could more easily start a biking program with the kids in their life.
Compiling what will become an online toolkit featuring templates of letters to be sent home with children, learning station outlines, and contact information for BikeUp, a local bike parking manufacturer, I will also add a few great bike books selections to help get kids excited about riding.
“Sally Jean, Bicycle Queen” by Cari Best, about a young girl who becomes a talented mechanic is one of our family’s favorite stories. And “Pedal It: How Bicycles are Changing the World” by Michelle Mulder is a collection of interesting, non-fiction history, science, and culture stories about bikes. Both books are appropriate for kids of all ages.
In addition to creating a toolkit to guide other parent cycling champions, we are now looking into developing a network of kid-friendly bike routes in our neighborhood. With a network of five schools, spanning 3 miles (5 km), this is just what parents may need to get even more children riding.