It’s that time of year again. Parents are stocking up on supplies and sending their young students back to class. Amid the paper, pencils, backpacks, and books, a bicycle may make for a productive and happy year of learning. Biking to school has many benefits: Students gain a sense of independence, they learn navigational skills, they get exercise and fresh air, and new research shows that their brains may actually get a boost from biking.
A recent study involving nearly 20,000 Danes between the ages of 5-19 showed that students who actively transported themselves to school by walking or biking performed better on tests throughout the morning. Those who pedaled or walked to class were better able to concentrate than those who had been shuttled by bus or car. The effect was more statistically significant than a common cause of morning stress in many households: eating a good breakfast.
Fortunately for the Danes, nearly half of their student population bikes to school. In contrast, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, only 2.2 percent of U.S. students in grades K-8 biked to school, while 15.7 percent walked. Notably, boys were twice as likely to bike as girls.
First-grader Reta Callihan is working to change that trend. She begins each school day with a one-mile commute by bike. Watching her quick legs and bright smile as she pedals up to Ellwood Elementary, it’s clear that Reta loves to ride. She rode her bike throughout her kindergarten year, and the family plans to continue the tradition this year, largely because it provides a built-in opportunity for quality time.
Mom Sherrie says that the morning ride “has become a way for them to bond, and she loves being with Dad … That is a time together that is hard to find with busy parents and a hard-working dad.” Sean Callihan makes it sound easy, “It just seemed like a no-brainer, we live so close; we both enjoy riding.” But, it’s time that he has made an effort to create for his daughter. Sherrie says, “Her school is in the opposite direction of his work, but he insists on riding with her every day.”
For many families, daily cycling may be unattainable. Hectic work schedules, offsite after-school activities, and longer commutes may present obstacles. Setting aside one day a week, or even a couple of times a month, to bike to school may be more realistic and can become an extra special event for children to look forward to.
For 4-year-old Anson Dunton, biking to preschool is a weekly treat. Anson rides in a rear-mounted seat, right behind his dad. Rob Dunton says, “We both love the ride, it is a weekly highlight. It’s like a mini-adventure, putting on the helmets, getting situated on the bike, we talk the whole time … about different routes and what we see: fountains, steep hills, old neighbors, fall leaves on the ground.” Anyone who has ever tried to get a young child out the door in time for school might appreciate the appeal of trading in a car-seat wrestling match for a cycling adventure. “Just the thought of it can turn around a challenging morning,” says Rob.
Many parents are concerned about the safety of cycling to school. Wearing a properly fitted helmet is a great first step, yet many children still ride without head protection. Between 2006-2011 only 11 percent of L.A. County children treated for bike-related injuries were wearing a helmet at the time of collision. Even children with helmets may wear them incorrectly, often with the helmet too far back, exposing the forehead, or with the chinstrap unfastened. Any area bike shop can help find a good fit, and hearing the benefits from another cyclist may hold more sway for older children than parental advice.
Traffic is another safety concern. Each family must assess their child’s maturity level and abilities, as well as checking traffic flow and potential hazards. In some areas, it may be best for young children to ride on sidewalks unbroken by driveways; however, in most cases, using the bike lane is the best option. Riding the route with children can help them develop the skills and confidence necessary to commute independently.
Santa Barbara County and the S.B. Unified School District recently worked together to help students safely transport themselves to two local schools. They created a paved, multi-use path for pedestrians and cyclists, building a connection between home and school for students attending San Marcos High School and El Camino Elementary. Continuing to expand safe biking routes would greatly improve the ability of our children to commute to school in a healthy and fun way.
Says Rob, “I’d love to see median separate bike paths created around town … I would support the investment of a more comprehensive and safer bike path system around the denser core of S.B.” Given the tremendous benefits that biking can provide for our children, investing in cycling safety and infrastructure seems elementary.