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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What’s more fun than an obstacle course?

One thing we’ve found at Bryant over the years is that you attract kids by making biking very fun. No surprise there and it’s really not very hard as biking is so inherently fun anyway. Good to remember though as you plan your bike to school events.

We hope to highlight some of these fun activities here. One activity that kids have enjoyed is the Bike to Bryant obstacle course.

Over the years, we’ve built our own ramps, teeter totters, jumps, and other obstacles. After a couple events with drab plywood obstacles, we had the brainstorm to paint them in fun colors with bikey sayings like “Be Cool, Bike to School” on them. Painting and building the ramps and jumps is part of the fun, and a great way to get kids involved in the project.

But the painting and building isn’t nearly as much fun as the actual riding. The kids have a blast and get to work on their bike handling skills too.

We’ve been doing this for a few years now, usually incorporating it into a celebration event towards the end of Bike to School Month. Last year we provided some cold treats as well, for an “Obstacles and Popsicles” event!

If you want to make your own obstacle course, we’re happy to provide some tips. It is mostly about being creative and involving the experts – the kids!

We’ve used a variety of pieces of plywood, usually 1/2″ or so (sometimes 3/4″) with 2 x 4s or wider to create the lip for ramps. We’ve found a few ways to rig up teeter totters as well. We’d be happy to share details.

Recent additions have included a colorful rumble strip, some snakey bike boards that are a challenge to ride on, and half hoops mounted on bamboo poles to ride through. There are so many more ideas; be creative! We’ve found that scrap wood works just fine for this, so it doesn’t need to be expensive, and these can be built with minimal tools and skills (we know that because… well, we were able to build them!).

We’ve also taken the obstacles on the road. They’ve been used at Laurelhurst, and also for the Fiets of Parenthood family biking extravaganza a couple years ago. This afternoon we’re going to try them at the inaugural Eckstein Bikes! Bike to School Month kickoff event. If you’d like to borrow a few obstacles  for an event, let us know and we might be able to set you up.

A couple of safety tips are worth noting. It helps to control the course with yellow caution tape around the perimeter. Station an adult or two in the middle of the course to help kids negotiate obstacles as needed. Another adult at the start is helpful to meter out the kid riders so only a couple are on the course at any one time. Other than that… be creative and have fun!