Cycling to School: A 'How to' Guide For Parents

Living on a main road means I cherish school holidays. The reduction of traffic in all its horrible manifestations is incredible. Yet the tragic reality of our lives is that holidays always end and on the very day they end I enter deep depression as I see hundreds of parents driving ridiculously short distances to take their kids to school. In case my disgust at such action sounds a little excessive let’s just remember that childhood obesity is now a global epidemic which is entirely preventable. Changing the way kids travel to school is an act of moral responsibility. Unconvinced? Here’s 5 reasons you might want to take the issue more seriously

1: Kids who participate in regular exercise are far less likely to develop obesity.

18.9% of children in Year 6 (aged 10-11) were obese and a further 14.4% were overweight. Of children in Reception (aged 4-5), 9.3% were obese and another 13.0% were overweight. This means almost a third of 10-11 year olds and over a fifth of 4-5 year olds were overweight or obese.

2: Obesity in childhood most commonly leads to obesity in adulthood. 

According to the World Health Organization, in 2010, there were around 40 million children under the age of five who were overweight worldwide. In the same year, three out of 10 children aged two to 15 were obese in the UK alone.

3: Regular cycling will not only improve your child’s health outcomes but also boost your child’s productivity and educational attainment

Exercise is like fertiliser for the brain

4: What a child learns as normal they will continue into adulthood.

It may be more realistic to accumulate physical activity through active transport than adding exercise to weekly leisure-time routines.

5: School traffic is responsible for a significant proportion of RTA’s involving children. To drive is to put your child and other children at an increased risk. 


I've been honing my telepathy skills for a sufficient period of time to know that right about now the average parent is thinking 'but it's not possible for me'. Based on anecodatal conversations I would hedge my bets the the following are amongst reasons stated for the aforementioned claim. 

1: I have to drive on to work

2: I have more than one child

3: It's not safe. 

So here’s another list. 7 tips to help you drop out of the ‘excuses zone’ and equip your kids with skills for a healthy life.

 

1: Talk to school and arrive early

Most schools now have breakfast clubs enabling you to drop the kids and then cycle into work. If you can’t cycle every day or have shifting patterns of parental responsibility then focus on doing what you can when you can. Try to outline a pattern for each week with incremental gains over a term ie: ‘Always cycle on a Friday’, and then ‘Always cycle on a Monday and Friday’ etc. Most schools have secure bike locking facilities and will even allow your child to store their bike overnight should the need arise. 

If your child’s school has inadequate provision report this to your local council, local press and local MP, they are contravening national health policy.

2: Don’t allow your life to be ruled by the fear of exceptional circumstances. 

Yes there may be times when you very occasionally need a car for extreme circumstances. See those circumstances for what they are; exceptional circumstances. Plan for what is normal and then build in a contingency. You’ll be saving so much on fuel that an occasional taxi fund will be no problem.   

3: Stage your child’s independence wisely

Some families will be ready for every member to jump on their own bikes and ride safely to school while for others staging the children's independence makes for a long term win. If one child is unable to ride or too young to ride independently we’d encourage you to transition from child seat, to tailgater, to independent cycling. A tailgater not only gives your child the real sensation of riding but also enables you to control their independence and safety while having the flexibility to alter this relationship as and when you discern it most appropriate.

We have friends who use a tailgate on main roads and then unhitch when off road, while we know others who have transitioned through this stage to simply shadowing kids on their own fully independent bikes.

When winter comes keep the kids visible with oodles of high vis.

For older kids the transition is more likely to be one of moving from you partnering your child, to shadowing them and then eventually dropping off altogeether. How long that progress takes will vary and there's absolutely no right or wrong time frame. It's about what works for you and your kids. 

4: Keep it fun and social

Remember you’re not trying to form athletes you’re trying to equip those you love with skills and behaviors which will keep them well for years to come. Enjoyment is therefore key! Is there a local park you might detour to? Are there rewards you might offer once in a while? Are there birds or flowers you can spot on your way (and yes this applies to those of us who live in city’s. I see a kestrel most days!)?

5: Seek support and then use it. 

In an age which places a high value on the virtues of independence and autonomy seeking support can be difficult but probably not as difficult as allowing your kids to inherit a world blighted by poor air quality, epidemic levels of obesity and an addiction to fossil fuels. The golden rule is simple: Just ask! We work alongside dozens of families each year, ping us an email and let’s work it out. If we can't help we're sure to know someone who can. Organisations such as European Cyclist Federation and Sustrans have heaps of helpful literature, support and advice. 

6. Dry run without the pressure

Once you’ve committed to cycling to school just do it! If that suggestion feels overwhelming do the exact same route but without the pressure of the school bell. Sunday afternoons or mid week evenings are great. Make a game of it. Most kids are pretty surprised to learn the teachers don’t sleep at school! 

7. The long way might be the best way

My mentor is forever telling me "Andi, sometimes the long way is the only way". It's a saying which is very true of the way we introduce others to the joys of cycling. Focus on a fast direct sprint and we're likely to loose their interest for life. Plan a liesurely route to school which feels enjoyable and above all safe. If that means you go a little out of your way then so be it, the long term gain is well worth the sacrifice of a few extra minutes.

 

Maybe you're reading all of this thinking that I've over played the health benefits and inadvertantly lost your interest. Your kids are healthy and carry no excess weight in which case let me ask you to try a little experiment followed by a little recognition. 

Go through all of the quotations above which make reference to obesity and replace them with quotations about the environmental impact of car use in the western world. The amazing genius of cycling is that it is not only good for us but it's good for our planet. 

Now for the recognition. Your child is beautiful, amazing, incredible, special, brilliant and full of untapped potential. They are also people of real influence. While we don't like to admit it the reality of their lives is that an increasing amount of their beaviour will be influenced by what their peers do, that's why we loose sleep over the company our kids keep and we delight in their possitive influence. Your child cycling to school might be the most significant enabler of another child's cycling to school which might be the most significant enabler of another child's cycling to school. Need I go on?

Helping our children to travel well is about helping them to make a possitive and selfless  contribution to the world around them while massively investing in their own wellbeing. 


Remember lists are for crossing off! Enjoy!