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It's Bike Week - But Most Aussie Kids Will Never Ride To School

Bike Week is back (March 17-26) – WA’s annual celebration of people riding bikes!  With a huge range of activities all around our great state, there’s never been a better time for us to get the whole family out there on two wheels – but are we?  Most of us grew up riding bikes; to and from school, to a mate’s place on the weekend, down to the local shops to pick up the bread and milk; but how many of our own children ride regularly, if at all?

From an article published on Kidspot: "According to David Strickland, Manager of Camps and Outdoor Sector Development for Sport and Recreation Victoria, of the 70,000 children attending school camps at their facilities each year, one in three of them can’t ride a bike."

When this information is paired with Active Healthy Kids Australia’s Report Card stating that "90 percent of children aged five to 17 will never ride a bike to and from school", we’re looking at a generation of kids who’ll probably never know the freedom of two-wheeled travel.

So what does it mean if a child never learns to ride a bike?  There’s a whole range of missed opportunities, from developmental growth (both physical and mental), to decision making, through to entertainment opportunities and freedom.

Learning to ride a bike engages so many physical and mental elements, when you break them all down it seems like an incredible feat to achieve.

  • Core strength and balancing skills; how to propel yourself forward to “start” riding, the understanding that to stay upright you must maintain a certain speed of pedalling, that you need to hold your hands and arms steady while you move your legs. 

  • Spatial awareness and judgement; not riding too close to the curb, sign posts or fences, riding alongside others without colliding, awareness of pedestrians and other traffic,
  • Coordination; how to approach a curb to successful mount it, how to tense and relax your muscles and stand up from the seat when going over uneven ground,
  • Decision making; where to go, how far to ride so that you’re not too tired to ride back,
  • Responsibility; making sure your bike is secure if you leave it, how to manage a flat tyre or broken bike chain,
  • Freedom; when you’re out riding, you’re in charge of how fast you go, how far you go, where you go. 

We've spoken with driving instructors now teaching young adults to drive a car who have never regularly ridden a bike.  This means little or no experience of operating a “vehicle” on the road (or footpath), no awareness of other vehicles, no experience controlling and operating a vehicle at speed, no understanding of anticipating another person’s decisions on the road, and no experience of mentally navigating from one location to another while travelling.

Children who are able to play and travel without an adult and those who walk or cycle to school are more likely to meet Australian physical activity guidelines, according to research from VicHealth.

The three-year study (2012 to 2015) initiated and funded by VicHealth and commissioned to La Trobe University and the Parenting Research Centre addressed a gap in evidence, looking to see if parental fear is a barrier to children’s independence and getting enough physical activity. Just one in five Australian children is physically active for the recommended one hour each day.

In 2014, VicHealth released preliminary findings of the survey of over 2000 Victorian parents. It suggested that children’s independence (like riding a bicycle unaccompanied) related to parental concerns about:

  • their child being approached by a stranger,
  • their child being somewhere unfamiliar without an adult, and
  • other family members’, schools’ and other parents’ disapproval

But there are other issues at play with children not learning to ride, or not riding unaccompanied.  Factors including time pressures on the family, (whether that is both parents working, extended commute time from home to school and work, and after school activities) and higher-density living (lack of space to safely learn to ride, living closer to high-traffic roads) also affect families’ decisions to teach their children to ride, or allow them to ride unaccompanied.

Confessions of a Training Wheel Addict

I have a confession to make.  I was a “late” teacher of bike riding for my kids, or should I say a late remover of training wheels.  The kids merrily rode around the neighbourhood with the safety of those two extra wheels for many years – far beyond when they needed them, just because it was easier for me.  No danger of falling off, no scraped knees or banged up elbows.  But when Kid Number One (who was seven at the time) grew out of her bike with training wheels, and the next size bike could not be fitted with them, we faced a dilemma.  ‘You can’t ride your 'big girl' bike until you learn to ride without the training wheels.” I told her.  There were a few tears, a couple of tantrums (mostly mine) until the realisation dawned.  She couldn’t ride her shiny new bike until she mastered the art of two-wheeled travel.

We chose the Easter long weekend as the time we would make it happen.  Four full days of no school, work or scheduled activities, to make a go of it.  Fully kitted out in helmet, elbow and knee pads (OK, maybe a little overkill) after a few false starts (mainly lack of balance without the stability of the training wheels and fear of falling when she wasn’t riding fast enough), she rode!  With a quick push from me, she took off down the path, squealing with excitement, calling out “Mum! I’m doing it! I’m RIDING!”  Although that was almost eight years ago, I still get emotional at the memory – the pride in her voice at having achieved something she thought she could not do, the thrill of riding fast (so much faster than training wheels allowed) and the absolute freedom of two wheels. 

And wouldn’t you know it, Kid Number 2 (who was five) mastered it the same day.

Kids Number 3 is now four years old, and we’re about to have the same discussions re the training wheels.  He seems so very small compared to 1 & 2 (who are now 15 and 13) and although I’ve done it before, I’m facing the same time constraints and parental concerns as the first time around.  But Easter is just around the corner, so maybe a bit of good old-fashioned bribery with some Easter chocolate might be a sweetener for both of us.

March 17th to 26th is Bike Week – and with more than 70 events around WA, including rides, bike swap meets, lessons and maintenance courses, it’s the perfect time to get the family out and moving, on two wheels!

More bike-spiration (see what I did there?) - http://www.medibank.com.au/bemagazine/6-reasons-why-kids-should-ride-bikes/

Top image credit: Nasim Fozdar

Bottom image credit: Instagram account @bakingmumma

 

Katherine Healy is Nature Play WA's Communications and Membership Manager.  She is mum to three (mostly) free range nature players, a girl and two boys, aged 15, 13 and 4.

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