Penny Ortiz brought her bright pink helmet, with bumps mimicking cat ears, for physical education recently at Darrington Elementary School.
It had been several months since the fifth grade students last spent their physical education class biking until that week in early May.
Bike education had started in the fall, but wildfire smoke pushed them indoors for safety lessons in the gym and classroom. Then winter precluded further riding outside.
On a recent weekday morning, Gavin Gladsjo, one of the small district’s PE teachers, rounded up Kim Wiersma’s 20 or so students for a lesson to practice road safety. Gladsjo unloaded the black-and-orange Specialized city bikes from a trailer just outside the ballfields, each with a taped number so students remember which one fits them best, and had the class run through their ABCs: checking air pressure, brakes and chains.
Students whose rides were ready, rolled through the grass, sometimes narrowly avoiding a slow-speed crash with yells of “Watch out!”
“It’s that first piece of independence that a child gets as they’re growing up, and a lot of kids are missing that now,” Gladsjo said.
The bikes, which fit the 10- and 11-year-olds, aren’t suitable for younger students. Gladsjo hopes to fix that with a fundraiser to buy 24 balance bikes that could adapt to students as they grow and being to use pedals.
The goal is to get $6,000 in donations by next year. For comparison, his annual classroom budget is $250 across all five classes between kindergarten and 12th grade.
Before the pandemic, an estimated 1 million fewer U.S. children regularly biked between 2014 and 2018, according to an industry report cited by The Washington Post.
When the pandemic gripped the country and other forms of entertainment and recreation were restricted, people flocked to biking.
Alison Dewey, education director of The League of American Bicyclists, said biking is a healthy physical activity that also gives children “freedom they deserve.”
“Biking is such a fundamental, easy way of getting places and exploring new areas, even just within your own community,” Dewey said. “It can take you far.”
But fewer children bike to school and in general than prior generations, she said.
School programs can help bolster that activity, which students can carry skills from forever.
All Kids Bike, the fundraising program Gladsjo is working with, started in 2018 as part of the South Dakota-based Strider Education Foundation created by bike company Strider. Since then, it has put an average of 24 bikes in over 950 schools, foundation school logistics specialist Bethany Carbajal said.
The fundraisers come with the balance bikes, pedal conversion kits, a teacher instructor bike and an eight-lesson curriculum available online.
Teaching students how to bike as early as kindergarten leads to greater likelihood of them riding through their life, Carbajal said.
“We found that by teaching students at that beginning level, kindergartners, they’re very much open and willing to learn as a group,” she said.
More schools are offering bike education as part of physical education, Dewey said. It’s part of the curriculum for second graders in the Washington, D.C. public school system, which she considered a role model for bike education.
From there, the League hopes children consider biking for more kinds of trips as they age.
“We want to see them equipped with that knowledge of what it means to ride safely and just knowing how to ride a bike,” Dewey said.
Ortiz, one of the Darrington fifth grade students, has her own bike but doesn’t use it to get to school. Gladsjo said he’s seen maybe six bikes regularly at the school’s rack.
But he knows children bike around town, and they’re likely to bike in other areas with busier roads and trails. That’s why he wants to ensure they know how to ride safely and signal properly.
A 2014 study found students rarely biked or walked to school at most elementary, middle and high schools, largely because of the distance and safety concerns.
Programs like the state’s Safe Routes to School can help governments build bike lanes and sidewalks, as well as other pedestrian safety near schools. Those investments are equally important to education, Dewey said.
“Parents have to feel safe themselves riding in their community to even think about sending their kids out to ride a bike,” she said. “We so often just prioritize cars, and that’s not a very fun place to be when you’re on a bike.”
For Darrington’s kindergartners, the first step toward bike safety could mean balance lessons on donated bikes and wearing donated helmets next year.
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