Adding Bicycling to PE

A conversation with Michelle Cox, Principal at St. Mary of the Assumption School in Santa Maria, California. Originally published in the Audacious Foundation Newsletter Winter 2019.

People over forty, many of whom grew up riding bicycles everywhere, may be surprised to learn that many children today never learn to ride a bicycle, for a wide range of reasons both social and economic.

The Audacious Foundation believes children NEED to ride bicycles, and we support bicycle instruction as part of the physical education curriculum. Bicycling enhances early brain development and reduces both long- and short-term risk of diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.

We talked to St. Mary of the Assumption School Principal Michelle Cox to learn how the Santa Barbara Bicycling Coalition bicycling program for second and third graders is working at her school.

AF: What were the challenges of launching the bicycling program?

Cox: Our two biggest challenges were logistics and scheduling. St. Mary’s worked with the Bike Coalition to bring the program to Santa Maria, which required bringing people and bicycles to North Santa Barbara County. It was a little tricky, but the Bike Coalition was fabulous to work with and easily solved the logistics. The other big challenge was scheduling, because we were using longer blocks of time for the bike lessons than for our regular PE times. Having a small school staff, we had a few wrinkles to work out with scheduling and staffing.

AF: How have kids and families responded to the program?

Cox: Oh, they love it! Parents see their children accomplishing something they themselves had not yet been able to help with for any number of reasons. Teaching a skill isn’t easy, so they just love seeing their kids achieve this rite of childhood. The students are so thrilled – it’s an accomplishment for them. At first they’re nervous and scared, and at the end of just four lessons they are riding and confident and showing us, “Look! Even when I fall down I can get back up and this is so much fun!” We’ve had such a great reaction, from both the children and the families.

Bikes in PELearning to obey the rules of the road

AF: What would you do differently if starting again?

Cox: I’m not sure we would do anything differently. We are making scheduling changes this year, even though we’ve had great success with the way it has run so far. Probably the only thing we’d look at differently is who will run the program on site; we only had one PE teacher when we started the program, and she is totally supportive but not a confident rider herself, so the team from the Bike Coalition was crucial to getting started. Now we have two PE teachers and will change the scheduling a little because it’s important for children to see the adults riding too. We want to model what we’re asking children to do.

AF: Were there unexpected benefits that surprised you?

Cox: One of the amazing side benefits is the joy of running into parents outside of school – and this happens to my husband, too – and hearing how much they love the program, or that they’re going to surprise their child with a bicycle for Christmas. The program has inspired not only the children but also families to go out and ride together. Seeing everyone’s pride in accomplishment is another great joy of the program.

One of my favorite things to watch – and I know this sounds weird – is when the children fall down but then get back up and try again. I love to see that! I don’t love to see them fall, but I do love to see them persevere and accomplish their goals. I love to see their faces light up when they feel that sense of success.