November 21, 2013
by Raymond Boyle
An early snow doesn't stop the kids at Pillsbury Elementary from getting out on their bikes.
Ever wondered what would happen if we made bicycling part of a school's curriculum?
This year, Pillsbury Elementary, a Minneapolis school, added biking to their fourth grade curriculum. The program focuses on kids learning through activity and adventure. Underpinning this idea are the convictions that communities can offer a wealth of bike-accessible resources, and that becoming a safe urban biker empowers kids and builds connections to their communities.
During the summer, I volunteered at Pillsbury to help check and repair the bikes for the school year. The "bike closet" sits in the cafeteria, right next to the lunch line. It's filled with 30 kid-sized mountain bikes, carefully arranged in two rows on garage-style utility hooks. This organized collection of bikes is the work of two teachers and a supporting cast who embraced the idea of bikes for elementary students.
Teacher Mark Trumper (right) and one of his students outside of the school.
By the end of September, the students were riding every week. One sunny, blue-sky morning, it was cold enough for gloves, but students in the fourth-grade class were too busy riding in a straight line to notice. They followed Pillsbury teacher, Mark Trumper, as they set off into the Windom Park neighborhood. Trumper has the students trained to think and speak the language of biking. This seems practical for everyone, but especially for the non-native speakers. As they ride through the neighborhood, it’s obvious that school has evolved—science, art and social studies no longer reside just in classrooms, but also outside, among this group of newly competent urban bikers.
The ritual of learning to ride a bike as young child does not hold true across cultural and economic boundaries. Mark said it best, “I was really struck by how little my students were allowed outside to play and how few of them owned bicycles or knew how to ride one well. It was one of those moments that changed how I look at education. We were missing a big part of education. Kids need the outdoors and to engage in adventurous activities.”
Trumper recruited art teacher Susan Tuck to help build support and momentum for his idea. After receiving multiple grants to begin building the bike fleet, Trumper began taking the school’s fourth graders riding (or learning to ride) in the fields at Windom Park. As the students’ skills progressed, they took short trips near the park and school to practice riding safely and in a large group. You can hear them calling out, “turning left,” “stopping” and on occasion, “biker down!” as their line of bikes snakes along neighborhood streets, trails and parks. Along the way, residents turn, smile and offer encouragement or a friendly greeting. Other riders pull alongside and chat with the students — these kids know all about holding their line, drafting and feathering the brakes. (And an unlucky few of them know firsthand about endos.)
The students taking a break on the Stone Arch bridge in Minneapolis.
Pillsbury is now piloting an after-school class, an offshoot of the school day riding program. This class is currently working on a series of park-to-park rides ranging in distance from five to 10 miles, with at least one playground break before completing the ride. The group’s goal for the autumn is to visit every park in Northeast Minneapolis before the snow and ice force them to hang up the bikes for the winter. On six recent trips, the kids have biked to 21 parks, logged more than 40 miles, climbed some big hills and displayed confidence in their abilities. “I now know that I can make it up any hill that we are asked to climb,” said one of the newest members of the group.
Funding to purchase a fleet of good quality kid-size mountain bikes and to support the program has come primarily from small grants, ranging in size from $500–$5,000.
Building biking into the school curriculum feels like the right idea. We know that small bursts of movement should be part of the school day. Long periods of sitting aren’t just bad for adults—they hurt kids too. At Pillsbury, teacher champions, a highly supportive administration and a plan to build biking into the curriculum have created a winning combination. Although bike riding in a bicycle friendly city like Minneapolis makes perfect sense, what if every community supported students spending a little time out of the building and on a bike?
The students in the afterschool program set a goal to visit every park in Northeast Minneapolis.
Raymond Boyle is a bicyclist and writer living in Minneapolis, MN.
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