Obstacles are Awesome!

Did we mention kids love obstacle courses? Apparently adults do too. A while back, we wrote about an obstacle course that we’ve used at several local schools, and it’s turned out to be one of our more popular posts.

Typical obstacle courseOver the years, we’ve found that turning kids loose on an obstacle course is one of the highlights of a bike-to-school event. Since other folks out there are interested in building obstacle courses for kid bikers too, we thought sharing a few more details might be useful. Let us know if you’ve got some ideas for safe and fun new obstacles to add to our inventory.

The basic approach we’ve used in creating the obstacles and course:

Keep it simple. You only need to invest as much time in building obstacles as you want to. Feel free to go crazy and design and embellish to your heart’s content, but it really doesn’t take a lot of time to put something together the kids will enjoy.

Keep it cheap. Recycle scrap materials if possible. Fun and safe obstacles are doable on a low budget.

Keep it safe. Of course safety is paramount. So scale the size of obstacles to the size of the kids and their bikes. You really don’t need to go big like they do on the North Shore. In fact, elementary school kids — especially the K-2 set — can have a lot of fun on smaller obstacles and anything too large won’t work very well for 16″ or 20″ wheel bikes anyway. Also secure the course really well. Flagging around the perimeter with only one entrance and one exit is key. So are adult or older kid volunteers controlling the timing of kids entering the course, and spotting the kids as they are going over the trickier obstacles.

Involve the kids. For a long time we used plain wood obstacles (from

recycled or scrap wood to the extent possible) and that worked just fine. But then we had the inspiration to get some kids involved in painting the obstacles fun colors and spray painting bikey sayings on them. And that created a sense of ownership for the kids, and made the obstacles way more fun too. Older kids can help with course control too.

Mix it up. It’s always fun to add a new obstacle or two, and also fun to change the course around each time.

A backyard painting party is a great way to involve the kid bikers

A backyard painting party is a great way to involve the kid bikers

Some of the types of obstacles and related stuff we’ve used that have worked well include:

Two ramps side by side can provide options

Two ramps side by side can provide options

Ramps — A simple run-up to a ledge is really fun and super-simple to build. It’s not too different than riding off a curb, but for some reason it’s way more fun! An 8-foot long piece of plywood is suitable for the length of the ramp, and the width can be the full four feet or something less (narrower is more challenging, but also risks more falls off the side, so use your judgment). Smaller ramps can be less than a full 8 feet long too. Either way, leave the ramp flat on the ground at one end, and screw it to a piece of 2x lumber at the other. Depending on the size and experience of the kids and their bikes, anything from a 2×4 to a 2×12 might be suitable. Or create two ramps, line them up next to each other and give the kids options.

Teeter-totters — These are a little more complex and challenging, but have

Teeter-totters are always a huge hit!

Teeter-totters are always a huge hit!

been a HUGE hit with the kids. An 8-foot long piece of plywood works for these as well, though honestly something longer might work even better, especially for higher teeter-totters. The hinge point is key — both its height and its construction. We’ve found about 8″ high to be a nice balance of challenge, fun, and safety (no guarantees though; spot the kids!). We’ve tried a few simple designs for the “hinge”; basically they’ve just been variations on getting a 2×4 6″ or more off the ground, with something on either end to keep the ramp from sliding off. We’ve never permanently secured the plywood to the hinge, so these can be disassembled in an instant; though they also take a little more oversight to keep everything lined up and working well. Coming up with an improved hinge joint would be a nice enhancement, but we haven’t really pursued it yet. We’ve also tried much higher teeter totters and honestly they were a little too sketchy for a wide range of kids. If you’ve got a group of all BMXers and either a soft landing zone (set up the course on grass?) or everyone is wearing pads, then go for it. But if not, and certainly for a typical after-school event, best to keep it on the lower and safer side so everyone has fun and no one gets hurt.

Hoops to duck under — We’ve set up all manner of cut-in-half hula hoops and similar features at just the right height for kids to barely ride under them with a little effort. Add a few streamers and these are really fun. Rigging them up with safety cones to provide some stability for the uprights has worked well.

Cones for corners — This is a simple one, but what would an obstacle course be without some challenging corners. Cones work really well for this.

Rumble strip — This is a newer feature we’ve used the last couple of years. Not super-challenging, but pretty fun to ride over, especially for the smaller kids. Basically just a few brightly painted 1x2s glued onto a sheet of plywood to keep them from moving around. Rrrrummble!

Bike limbo

Speed Bumps

Entrances and exits — Leave a gap in the perimeter flagging at each end of the course, add a couple of uprights or use an existing feature on your school grounds, and add some streamers and decorations. A set of hanging streamers off a bamboo pole or similar can make a fun final feature to ride through.

Small cones, fake “rock” obstacles, etc. — A couple of short fields of tricky stuff in the road to avoid adds a bit more bike handling to the mix.

Sidewalk chalk and safety flagging — We’ve typically used sidewalk chalk to mark the course and safety flagging around the perimeter.

Be creative and have fun and the kids will too. When we we set these up, the line of kid bikers extends across the playground. Shutting the course down for the day is the biggest challenge of all!

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Plan now for the coming Spring!

It’s still a little wintry out, for Seattle anyway. But the days are getting longer and spring is right around the corner. For many of us, late winter is the season for bike swaps, chilly-hilly rides, and final laps to the ski hill. It’s also an excellent time for spring bike to school planning.

Seattle’s “official” Bike to School Month is in May, coinciding with Bike to Work Month. And the word on the street is that Bike to School Day this year is May 8, so mark your calendars.

May is still a couple months off, but we’ve found that getting an early start is essential. Maybe this means holding a parent meeting in March. Or hosting a kick-off event or bike rodeo in April. Or just coming up with a strategy for starting or growing a walk and bike culture at your school this coming spring.

Planning for a successful event — or better yet for a successful month or longer-term program — requires thinking ahead. Some ways to get started:

  • Put together a team. Find some like-minded parents and staff or administrators to work with.
  • Come up with some fun and creative events, anything from a Bike to School Day blitz to a month-long set of activities. Check out previous blog posts here to get some ideas.
  • Come up with a strategy for communication and advertising.
  • Source some donations or discounts from local businesses. Bakeries and bike stores are especially helpful to have on board!
  • Get your administration and PTSA involved.
  • Talk it up with other parents.

Once you’ve established a plan and a team and gotten some resources together, you’re on your way.

Need some more ideas about how to get going? Check out our Getting Started post from last year. And look forward to a walk.bike.schools meeting or two in the next few months to compare notes among schools as we collectively launch springtime programs.

There’s no better time than now to begin gearing up for a springtime of biking to school!

You can even get the kids involved in bike planning. Here some middle schoolers envision better parking.

Consider getting the students involved in bike to school planning! Here some middle schoolers envision bike parking improvements.