A Mettawee Community School sixth grader broke into an ecstatic dance and clenched her fists in the air, as her classmates applauded. Her physical education teacher Janna Webb had just announced that she had moved up from training wheels to official bike rider. It was a joyful example of success after a week of training provided by Bike Smart.
Bike Smart started seven years ago under the direction of Local Motion, a Burlington non-profit organization with a mission: Make biking and walking a way of life in Vermont. Its Bike Smart program consists of four trailers, filled with bikes and helmets of all sizes, that travel Vermont in search of children eager to ride bikes, a normal rite of passage of childhood. The destinations are schools and camps that host the trailer for a week or two, as children are instructed on the merits of safe biking.
At Mettawee, a school with a penchant for embracing the outdoors as part of its education mission, the Bike Smart program was as easy as coasting down a gentle hill.
To reach all students, Mettawee simply substituted Bike Smart as the PE class for all grades for the week of May 3-7. To accommodate the young bikers, the recently paved staff parking lot was put off limits to cars for one week, giving the kids a smooth half-acre surface with no distractions for pedaling and play.
“I was concerned that the kids, especially the younger grades, might be a little scared or intimidated, but boy was I wrong,” said Webb. “From the moment they reached the pavement, they broke out into smiles as they selected bikes and rode off.”
Webb said he was able to offer a variety of options to students with a wide range of biking skills. Space was set aside to allow new learners to master tricks of the trade. Training wheels were available to help the children gain confidence with balancing a bike. Another option for inexperienced riders was to remove the pedals so they could power the bike by their feet.
Even Webb got into the act. “I did it!” she exclaimed when she acquired the skill of the “track stand” (riders feet remain on pedals while the bike is stationary, before riding off without feet ever touching the ground).
A number of activities were available for the active bikers. Colored cones were set up to create a curving course where youngsters could practice control. An open area was available for them to free ride and improve their skills. The most popular, however, was the biking game “dab,” where a cluster of bikers ride in a small designated space. They steer strategically, without touching other bikes, forcing other contestants to either ride off the course or put down their foot (DAB!). (Think bumper cars without the bumping.) The last rider still pedaling, wins.
“One thing I love about Bike Smart is the peer support as the kids encourage and help each other to improve their skills,” said Mettawee Principal Brooke DeBonis. “I also smile when I see the students gaining confidence. By Monday evening I was already receiving calls and texts from parents telling me how excited and proud their children were about biking at school. And those messages just keep coming.”
At the end of the week, Webb asked the students to share their thoughts on biking week at Mettawee. A few comments from students (whom the school wishes to remain anonymous) include:
“Yes, let’s do it again next year, but for two weeks not one.”
“I’m going to ask my parents to bring me to the school parking lot to ride on the weekends.”
“I can ride a bike, how cool is that.”
“Today is my dream come true. I’m a rider now!”
In addition to the support from Local Motion, Bike Smart Week at the Mettawee Community School was assisted locally by J&S Bikeworks of Poultney.