Bike to School Month is Almost Here!

Sacajawea bikersReady for Bike to School Month? May 1st is right around the corner.

If you’re not fully prepared, don’t panic. Folks at other schools are still hatching their plans too. May sneaks up on us every year, and this year is no different.

And this year Bike to School Day is May 8th — earlier in the month than usual. So now is prime time for finalizing plans to get more kids biking at your school this spring.

Maybe you want to put together a month-long program. Or perhaps a one-day activity on Bike to School Day. Or maybe you’re thinking of once-a-week activities — maybe Bike to School Fridays with something planned each week.

Any of these approaches are great, and in fact many established programs started small. Even a modest Bike to School Day event can begin to create a bike culture at your school.

The primary purpose of walk.bike.schools is to share information among schools — tips and techniques, including what has worked at other schools. So if you’re planning some bike to school activities for May and beyond, hopefully the following links to some past posts will be useful.

And if getting kids walking is more your thing, that’s cool too. May is also an awesome time to walk to school!

Without further ado, here are links to some posts that focus on various aspects of putting together a bike or walk to school day, month, or longer term program:

The Big Picture

Some specific ideas

Highlights from a few schools

And some walk to school ideas

Hope this is helpful as you gear up for May and the rest of the spring. Let us know how it goes!

Let's fill the bike racks at every Seattle school this May!

Let’s fill the bike racks at every Seattle school this May!

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The Loyal Heights Urban Cycling Club

Loyal Heights urban bikersIf you were an elementary school student just getting comfortable on your bike and navigating your neighborhood, how cool would it be to be part of a bike club to work on skills and ride with your friends?

It’s no wonder that so many kids are on sports teams, in scouts or band, or participate in other activities. It’s super fun to get together with some other like-minded kids to build skills and learn from a coach and each other. And biking clearly has the same potential: so many adults enjoy the social aspects of cycling and belong to a club or a team or just appreciate riding with friends.

So a bike club for kids seems like a no-brainer, right? But there aren’t many at the elementary school level in Seattle. That is beginning to change, however, and one of the more interesting new initiatives in Seattle’s bike to school world is an after-school club recently founded at Loyal Heights Elementary in Ballard. We’ve touched on it before, highlighting it as one of the many promising 2013 programs receiving some support from Safe Routes to School mini-grants this year.

I’m excited to report the club has been formed and the fun has begun! From Loyal Heights parent and bike to school organizer Shannon Koller:

The Loyal Heights After-School Urban Cycling Club is off and rolling after a very successful first meeting last Friday.  Seventeen 3rd – 5th graders are participating in this new after-school club, 10 of which are girls!  After learning each others names, we started off with helmet fit, then went on to ABC quick check and how to lock up your bike.  Sensing a growing energy in the group, we got the kids on their bikes and taught them the basics of starting, stopping, standing, and shifting.

The kids really seemed to like the ability to learn something, then immediately practice it.  This week we will teach hand signals, road signs, rules of the road, then practice skills like rock dodge, scanning, quick stop, slalom and more.  Theory and application is the center of the curriculum and we will eventually be taking our lessons on to the neighborhood streets in April for organized rides to the Ballard Library, Sunset Overlook Park, and the Ballard Greenway.  Each week kids will practice riding through roundabouts, unmarked intersections, bike lanes, and other urban infrastructure that they will encounter in our neighborhood.

Demonstrating proper braking techniques

Demonstrating proper braking techniques

The cool thing about this bike club is that it’s focused on helping kids develop real-world riding skills appropriate to Seattle and specifically to the neighborhood around Loyal Heights and Ballard. This will empower these kids to become independent, competent urban cyclists!

Shannon also reports that Loyal Heights is already planning for Bike to School month, and shared some early details. They expect to hold a kickoff event on Saturday, April 27 on the school playground with a bike skills workshop, bike adjustment station, helmet sale, and more.  Kickoff events are a great way to start bike to school months or springtime biking in general, by giving families some initial support and encouragement, and simply providing a specific time to get the community focused on the potential for kids getting to school under their own power. Loyal Heights also plans to hold organized neighborhood rides to take place right after the event.

Loyal Heights is also considering organizing some bike trains too, possibly on Bike to School Day. We’ll be posting a little more info on bike trains in the near future.

It’s awesome to hear that schools are already launching springtime bike to school programs!

Making signs for an urban biking course

Making signs for an urban biking course

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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Getting the Word Out

One of the challenges with any program or activity at a school is communications. What are the best methods for informing the school community about upcoming events? What about safety messages, bike parking considerations and the like?

It’s important to reach both the parents and the students. And of course they respond to different forms of communication, and different messages too.

With our Bike to Bryant and Eckstein Bikes! programs, we confess to not being experts on communication strategies! We’ve mostly learned by trying things, and then repeating the approaches that have worked, scrapping the ones that haven’t, and adapting all of the above based on lessons learned. Particularly at Eckstein Middle School, this is still a huge work in progress, as we honestly haven’t quite figured out how to best reach folks yet, despite trying a wide variety of communication techniques.

Some things that we have tried so far at Bryant and Eckstein:

  • Articles and short announcements in weekly newsletters. Most schools have some form of weekly (at Bryant, it literally is “The Bryant Weekly”) that is distributed to the entire school community. This goes out to everyone, though it seems to vary in terms of the degree to which folks have time to read it.
  • Shout-out in the daily email if your school has one. Both Bryant and Eckstein have a “big list” type email that goes out to most folks each day, and typically only deals with one or two topics. If you can get space here, it is a good way to bring some focus and emphasis to what you are doing. Great way to communicate in the lead-up to a big event.
  • Direct email to folks who have already “signed up.” This is a great form of direct communication, but usually only limited to whatever email list you have assembled of folks who have expressed interest. Hard to expand the base with this one, but good for updates. This can be adapted into a google group or something similar.
  • Good old fashioned signs and posters. This is one of our favorites. Much as we think of ourselves as living in a wired, connected society, sometimes folks really notice an old-school sign or poster, especially if hand-made and placed in a strategic location. Tyvek is fantastic for this. It is waterproof and you can write in permanent markers on it. You can get a roll at a hardware store. It also mates well with sandwich boards. Highly recommended!
  • We are also excited about Bike to Bryant’s new “permanent”  sign. It cost about $150 (funded by our Safe Routes grant) and provides both long-term “branding” and a daily reminder that our school is promoting biking, as well as a spot to insert updates and current information. Let us know if you want details, specs, etc.
  • Enthusiasm and word of mouth. Another favorite and honestly in my opinion the single biggest way to get the word out and gin up interest. We have a couple of very enthusiastic parents who are consistently at school as families are arriving. Talking it up, whooping it up for kids who walk or bike, and reminding families of upcoming events is hugely helpful.
  • Social media. We’ve been trying Facebook and Twitter for the Eckstein Bikes! program.  We’re still in start-up mode, but this has potential. So far we have more participation (e.g., Facebook “likes”) from the general community than from Eckstein families, though we have some families tuning in too and the numbers are growing. I have a hunch for high school this is probably a great strategy. Middle schoolers seem to be transitioning such that some are interested in this, others not so much. Check us out at http://www.facebook.com/Ride2Class and/or follow us on twitter @Eckstein_Bikes. We’re having fun with it, and it’s been a good way to share what we’re doing with the broader community and connect with other walk/bike interests. I have also noticed that the Thornton Creek bike train program has used social media to great effect right here on this blog — lots of hits by parents reviewing routes and timing, etc.
  • Graphics. Fun and creative graphics go a long way. Even better if generated by kids! But creative ones from parent volunteers can be really helpful too. These can of course be incorporated into many of the other communication approaches.
  • Flyers and cards. We have used these just a little and to be honest haven’t found them to be that successful, especially given the amount of paper that is needed.  That said, sometimes having something tangible to hand someone to provide information can certainly be useful.

How are you getting the word out about your walk and bike programs? Let us know!

Bike to School Month: Tracking Trips (without paper)

Track your Trips!Since Bryant began participating  in Bike to School Month in 2007, we found that one of the most cumbersome (and least fun) tasks during Bike to School Month was keeping track of the kids’ bike trips. Although Cascade has an electronic tracking system for middle and high school students, they still use paper forms to track trips for elementary schools.

The first couple of years we used Cascade’s Bike to School Calendar. This turned out to be more work than we thought necessary. Just to get the paper form out to the 500+ kids at Bryant entailed downloading the form, printing/copying one for each student and manually stuffing each form into the Weekly newsletter that went home to families. At the end of the month we did it all in reverse – collecting forms from teachers, tallying the results manually and sending them to Cascade.

Whew, that makes me tired just thinking about it. Read more of this post