Why Kids Are Learning to Ride Bikes at School

A cyclist from John Eaton Elementary masters the art as part of new bicycling initiative at public schools in Washington, D.C. Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock

All public schools students in Washington, D.C., will now learn to ride a bike in second grade — something I wish someone would have thought of sooner.

The school district, with assistance from the District Department of Transportation and some private donors, bought 1,000 bikes that will rotate from school to school throughout the year. Kids will hop on their bikes and pedal around the gym or playground learning how to start, stop and not fall off as well as basic bike care.

"This a lifelong skill,” Miriam Kenyon, director of health and physical education for D.C. Public Schools, told the Washington Post. “It’s a way students can get to school and it’s also a way they can exercise with their family. It promotes independence, and it’s a good way to get around.”

Kenyon said the district wants to make sure that students throughout the city know how to ride a bike, a skill that many people take for granted.

Daniel Hoagland of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, who reaches bike safety courses in D.C. schools, told the Post that he encountered “surprisingly high numbers of kids” who didn't know how to ride bikes, especially in schools that serve students in poor neighborhoods.

Hoagland also teaches adults to ride and says he has heard all sorts of reasons why they didn't learn as children. Some had bad experiences early on that made them give up, some come from other countries where bike riding wasn't familiar, and others said their parents didn't know how or just never taught them.

I know the feeling.

I grew up the oldest child of immigrant parents in a working-class neighborhood in Cincinnati. At some point, I had a bike with training wheels, but I rarely rode it — I was a real bookworm. While my younger siblings were out biking, skating and running around the neighborhood, I was usually reading or writing stories. My siblings somehow took off their own training wheels and figured out how to ride. I never did.

Years later when I confessed this to my then-boyfriend (and now my husband), he vowed to teach me. On a beach vacation, we rented bikes and I gingerly pedaled around a parking lot ... straight into some hedges. That was the limit of my biking experience until our preschooler was learning how to ride a bike and wanted me to join the fun. I pedaled around the cul-de-sac and was so ridiculously petrified, I gave up — again.

(Ironically, I've ridden horses for years. There's plenty of balance involved there, but four legs instead of two wheels is much more reassuring to me.)

Not afraid to fall

Back in Washington, D.C., administrators say they chose second grade because that's when the curriculum focuses on balance and coordination. (As the kids in the video above prove they have a handle on.) It's also an age when children aren't afraid to fall, Kenyon told the Post, and when enough students already know how to ride so that they can help teach their classmates.

“We decided second grade is a foundational year,” said David Gesualdi, a physical education teacher at D.C.'s Walker-Jones Education Campus. “A kid needs this experience before second grade, and if they don’t receive it by this age, we are going to provide it.”