Every morning, rain or shine, frost or not, my son Marco and I hop on our bikes and ride off to school. (Snow might stop us, but we never have to deal with that here in the San Francisco Bay Area.)
This is one of the best things I’ve done as a kindergarten parent. There’s no homework to help him with, and we feel no need to drill him in reading or arithmetic at home every day. He’s doing well enough on both these at school. However, where else is he going to get the following benefits of biking to school every day?
- Exercise: Our ride one-way is 1-1/2 miles, over flat terrain. Doing this every day, Marco’s gets two pretty good 10-15 minute workouts. I think this exercise makes him a better student. Also, he’s become a pretty strong rider for a six year-old, so he has the confidence and ability to ride many places on his bike.
- Morning discipline: With some verbal prodding from me and his grandmother, Marco dresses himself every day. He has to be totally ready when he walks out of the house so he can ride his bike. He needs to pump his legs hard to get to school every day, not just sit in the back of a car. Thus far, we’ve never been late.
- Management of personal items: Marco must manage his bike every day. For instance, he needs to remember where he parks it every day at school, because someone other than me usually rides home with him. Also, he needs to lock it and unlock it himself. He manages clothing accessories like gloves, a headband, and a helmet twice a day for his bike rides. He lost his gloves once early on, but I made him figure out where he left them, and he found them himself. That was a great lesson. He hasn’t lost anything else since then. This is getting him ready for managing a cell phone in a couple of years.
- A no excuses attitude: Like most kids his age, Marco has had a tendency to whine about lots of things. “My hands are cold!” “My leg hurts!” “I’m tired!” “My backpack’s bothering me!” I’ve heard them all. When I hear one of these, I either fix the problem on the spot (e.g. by putting gloves on his cold hands), or, if I deem that there is no serious issue, as is usually the case, I implore him to ignore the problem and go on. Because he is riding a bike, he realizes that there is no easy “out” for these whines. He can’t just crawl up into a ball in his car seat. Thus, these whines have diminished considerably over the past few months since we started riding. In fact, I haven’t heard one in at least two weeks.
- Neighborhood awareness: On an average ride to or from school, Marco says “hi” to many people, mostly fellow bike commuters, and makes at least a comment or two to me about other neighborhood features he notices. Right now, workmen are repaving various streets in our neighborhood, so Marco has been making remarks about the repairs. Other times, he’ll notice something about a car or a tree or a house. The point is that, by biking through these streets rather than riding in a car seat behind windows as he passes them, he is perceiving more and interacting more with his neighborhood.
- Faster commuting: Wanna save time? Ride with your young child to school on bikes rather than drive him or her. Seriously. Our elementary school, like most schools, has a traffic jam at the dropoff spot every morning and afternoon. Parents who opt to park away from the jam and walk their children the rest of the way end up walking a long distance, at a much slower rate than bike riding. Meanwhile, Marco and I rarely slow down for traffic, and we park at the bike rack right in front of school. I’m positive that our commute is faster than any of our neighbors who drive.
- Expertise riding in traffic: Over the last month or two, I’ve let Marco ride in front. I want him to learn how to ride on his own safely in traffic – not huge traffic, just two-lane residential streets. Of course, I’m behind him at every moment, barking out orders when I see him doing something wrong. Sure, this is nerve-racking for me, but he’s learning a lot. He’s now fairly aware of all cars and bikes at stop sign intersections. He’s doing a decent job of deciding to yield or go when another vehicle is stopped. He’s not ready to handle these intersections by himself, but he’s close.
- Navigation ability: Marco knows the streets between our house and his school very well. As I just mentioned, I let him ride ahead these days, so he makes all the turns. Using his sense of direction, he’s even able to improvise a detour route when the street we normally take is blocked.
Of course, my eventual goal is to help make Marco into a very self-reliant kid. Having him ride his bike to school every day is one big step in that direction. Sometime in the next year or two, I’ll let him ride on his own every day. Then, he’ll be able to ride on his own to other places, such as to friends’ houses or to stores. As he does these things, he’ll start learning to manage his own time and his own responsibilities.
It’s important to me that he become self-reliant at a young age just as it’s important to me that he read, write, and multiply well at a young age. They’re all parts of the same puzzle of preparing children to become confident, well-functioning adults.