Since working for a bike company I have begun to feel like I have a responsibility to encourage more people to get on bikes and enjoy riding. I also like to volunteer when I can, so with these interests in mind I signed up to be a volunteer at the annual Madison Recreation Learn 2 Ride event. This year Schwinn’s Helmets on Heads was a sponsor of the event so it was a great chance for me to see how kids in such a great bike town like Madison can learn to ride.
As I rode my bike to the event I reflected on my experience learning to ride a bike. I remembered the hand-me-down Schwinn that rattled with noisy training wheels and the inner frustration of seeing friends and siblings pedaling off while I was still wobbling behind them. Eventually I was able to master what seemed then unachievable and the open bike ride became mine.
It was a huge relief when my son didn’t have to learn the same way I had. When he was 4 one of the neighborhood kids about the same age had already learned to ride without training wheels. My son was immediately interested and our neighbors let him borrow the special training bike that their child had learned on. It was a balance bike or sometimes called a “strider bike” it had a small wheel size and no pedals or crank arms. My son spent the next two weeks gliding up and down the sidewalk sitting on the bike and pushing with his feet. Soon he could steer and balance the bike without his feet touching the ground for long lengths and then he was ready for his own bike with pedals. Amazing! What took me years took him only a few days! It was fantastic that he easily learned without the frustration I had remembered as a child.
When I arrived at the event I donned my volunteer t-shirt and then got my instructions. Everyone that volunteered was sourced from various groups around the city that had bike, helmet fitting, or bike mechanic experience. Cristine, the leader, reminded us that we were not just there to work, but we were also there to be positive and give encouragement to the kids in the form of high fives. The bright green volunteers’ shirt even said “I like high fives and I cannot lie”.
Soon students and parents arrived for the class. Each of the parents had been asked to prep the child’s bike for the class by removing the training wheels and pedals from the student’s bike and lowering the seat on the bike so the child could put their feet flat on the ground while sitting on the seat. After the bikes were ready to go the students were each asked to sign the Helmets on Heads pledge; that they would wear their helmets each time they road their bike. Then they were treated to a helmet fitting and free helmet courtesy of Helmets on Heads.
Helmet fitting was my station, so for the first part of the class we were very busy. Each student was shown the proper way to wear a helmet, how to adjust it for the right, secure fit. Many parents were unaware that the front brim of the helmet should be no more than two fingers (the child’s fingers) above the brow line. Only in this position is the helmet ready to do its job. When most bike crashes happen the rider falls to the front or the side so without the helmet in the correct position the front part of the head is unprotected and the helmet can’t function as it was designed. With the helmets fitted and in place and their bikes ready, the students were ready to hit the bike courses.
After finishing with my station I went out to the courses to see how the students were doing. Just as Christina had said there were some children that were easily getting the feel for gliding and balancing and others that looks like they would struggle for a while. In some cases you could tell by looking at the faces and body language of the student and parent that the child had been trying to learn for a long time and that this was almost a one last-ditch effort. What was clear was that no matter what brought the students and parents to the class that day each was there to face the problem head on. There was a real sense of purpose in the air.
The idea of the balance bike approach to learning is really not that new. Later, when I had time for a Google search, I learned that the idea of a balance bike was first invented by Karl Drais, a German inventor, in 1817, and was the first form of the two wheel bike we know today. The proponents of this method claim that children learn to ride faster since they first learn to balance and counter steer and then worry about pedaling later. This was the case with my son, and I was growing more convinced that it could work for others too.
Little by little as the class progressed around the bike course the length of the glides got bigger and bigger. As each student went by we encouraged them to lift their feet up a little bit more; glide just a little bit more. Some students were taking to it right away, in fact one that initially struggled when their parent was running next to them was now having success gliding and was already back at the mechanics station to get their pedals back on. Still there were some others that needed to continue with the push, push, glide, push, push, glide, technique.
One of the staff members working with a student who was getting very frustrated suggested that maybe they needed to take a 10 minute break. Looking defeated, the student headed over to a nearby curb to rest under one of the trees for a while. This gave me an opportunity to chat with the student and parent.
The parent was very appreciative of the event and said they felt they already made some great progress that day. They mentioned what a positive learning environment and relief it was to see so many other children of similar age that needed to learn to ride too. A class like this was very encouraging especially to older children that didn’t learn to ride as fast as their friends. I thought about my learning story and could see what she meant. Sometimes struggling to learn something means you feel like you are alone, struggling by yourself, and just knowing that others share your plight can be very encouraging in itself. The parent also mentioned that having other adults be the learning coach instead of the parent was also a nice change of pace. I could see her point; there was less pressure here and lots of high-fiving friendly faces. After the short break her son started making amazing progress with his gliding.
Little by little students were growing more confident in balancing with each rotation around the course. It became clear that the reasons that a student would struggle were as varied as the students themselves. The variations of the apparent mental barriers ran the gamut; boy, girl, short, tall, older, younger, parents, no parents, athleticism, shy, fear of falling, fear of pedaling; each symptom started to erode away with each glide. Whatever the past inhibitor was, today they started to crumble and disintegrate as frustrated grimaces gave way to wide grins.
As successful gliding students got their pedals back they would come back to the course and do more laps as they got acquainted with pedaling, turning and braking. By the end of the day as students morphed into two wheeled riders the volunteers were ready to high five the world’s newest bike riders.
As an observer it was fantastic to see one of childhood’s most remembered moments and lifelong skills learned right before my eyes. It was an honor to help the students and parents conquer their learning demons. Witnessing the parents’ emotional responses felt a little like the magic of watching an infant taking their first steps.
I would love to say that everyone that day left on two wheels, but there were still some that would need some more time and practice that the class time couldn’t allow. But those students were given a solid skill base that would have them riding when they were ready and an opportunity to come back to a future class if needed. For the many kids that did find success, they were given something priceless; the chance to feel the freedom of riding a bike. There is nothing else like it. I didn’t have to ask afterwards if the students enjoyed the class, the proud smiles on their faces said it all. I pedaled home feeling like I had done something good for the world.
Get Out and Ride!
Check out the video from last year’s event below!