Cycling kids are confident kids, more independent and brainier to boot. Just 15 minutes’ cycling to and from school could make a real difference to your child's fitness, establishing habits of healthy activity that could be life-long.

PARENTS: Don’t be a taxi-driver, let your kids cycle to school

Most kids don’t get enough exercise

Experts say that to stay fit, children need at least one hour of moderate physical activity every day (for example, brisk walking or cycling). But only six out of ten boys and four out of ten girls get that.

TV and computer games may be part of the problem. Another is the habit we’ve developed of driving our children to school and social events, over distances that would have been walked or cycled by previous generations.

Cycling is one of the best forms of exercise you can get. Doctors say that adults who cycle regularly have, on average, the fitness levels of people ten years younger.

Cycling makes you fitter, more alert, cleverer

A more active lifestyle now, continued into adulthood, would greatly improve your child’s chance of living a long and healthy life. Physical inactivity is a far greater cause of heart disease than smoking, yet we take it much less seriously.

Daily exercise has many immediate benefits as well. They include improved bone strength, muscle tone, healthier joints, increased alertness and improved academic performance.

Teachers often comment that children who walk or cycle to school arrive brighter and more ready to learn than those driven by car, and a recent US study showed a positive link between physical activity and performance in school tests.

Cycling encourages independence

By allowing children to make their own way to school you can help them to become more confident and independent, which is especially important in the transition from primary to secondary school. The school journey is an ideal opportunity for children to learn road safety awareness and other life skills.

For many children, cycling is simply more fun and more sociable than going to school by car, and they love the feeling of freedom it gives them.

Cycling is good for the planet – and your neighbourhood

If more children cycled to school it would be good for the environment, nationally and locally – less traffic congestion, less pollution and fewer of the emissions that cause global warming.

You may feel that one fewer car on the road in the morning won’t make any difference. But the more people who decide to cut out the school run, the safer the streets will be, and the easier it will be to encourage others.

Helping your child cycle safely

We know the benefits, so what’s stopping us from letting our kids cycle? Safety is the number one worry for many parents.

Fortunately, serious accidents involving child cyclists are rare – much less common than those involving child pedestrians or car passengers. Fewer than 20 per cent of all road accidents involving primary school children occur on the journey to school.

The risks of cycling are dwarfed by the health risks of lack of exercise. In 2000, 125 people were killed while cycling. In the same year 125 000 people died from coronary heart disease, of which an estimated 45 000 were caused by inactive lifestyles.

Buying a bike

You don’t need to spend a fortune on buying a bike for your child, but it is important to get the right size bike in good working order.

Whether you’re buying new or second-hand, here are the main things to think about:

Is the size right? A bike that is too big or too small is dangerous. Don’t be tempted to go for a bike that your child will’grow into’. Most bikes can be adjusted to allow for growth, so make sure that your child can sit comfortably on it with the seat at its lowest setting. To begin with, the balls of their feet should just touch the ground, and they should be able to turn the handlebars, brake and change gear without over-stretching.

As a rough guide, 20" wheels are on bikes for 5-8 year olds; 24" wheels are usually recommended for 9-11 year olds; and 26" wheels are suitable for those 11 and over, but the main thing is that the bike fits your child. When your child gains in confidence you can raise the saddle in increments, until the seated child has to reach the ground on tip-toes. Such a seating height leads to a more efficient riding position.

Does the bike meet legal standards? Your child’s bike should conform to British safety standard BS6102/1 and be marked accordingly. It should have two separate braking systems, front and back.

What type should we get? The array of types and styles can be confusing. Be clear about exactly what your child will use his or her bike for, then ask the bike shop or dealer for advice. If the bike doesn’t come fitted with mudguards – most don’t – have the dealer fit them. Consider fitting dynamo lights so you’re not so reliant on batteries.
Cycle helmets: It is not mandatory for children to wear helmets when cycling. If you do decide to go down the polystyrene route, don’t be influenced by helmets that feature cartoon characters, buy for safety and ventilation, not just looks. Helmets should always be bought new and should conform to one of the following safety standards: BS6863, AS2063.86, ANSIZ90.4, SNELL B90 or B95. It is essential that your child’s helmet fits properly: It must not interfere their ability to see and hear clearly

It should fit firmly and not wobble

It should be positioned squarely on their head, sitting just above their eyebrows (not pushed back or forwards)

The straps should be securely fastened and not twisted, with enough room for two of fingers to be inserted between chin and strap

It should feel comfortable. It must be cycle-specific.
FAQS My child has grown out of his/her bike and I can’t afford a new one.

Second-hand kids’ bikes are often in very good condition and you can find some real bargains by looking in the classifieds ads in your local newspaper. Check for the tell-tale signs your ‘bargain bike’ hasn’t been mistreated: flaking, rippled paint, especially where the frame tubes join, could be a sign the bike has been ridden into a wall and you’re being palmed off with it. If you have an old bike to sell, you could get together with other parents to organise a ‘bring and buy’ bike sale at school. Buy the best you can afford. Independent bicycle shops are often the best place to buy bikes because of good advice, individual treatment, and long-term servicing of the bike. Buy your milk from the supermarket, not your child’s means of transport. I still feel my child would be safer in the car, where I am in control.

Cars can give a false sense of security. 179 children were killed in road accidents in 2002. Of these, 22 were cyclists and 78 were car passengers. As long as your child cycles sensibly there is no reason to suppose they are in more danger than they would be in the back of your car. However, statistics do not necessarily help when talking about individual situations. RoSPA claims that many accidents involving children could be prevented by encouraging good cycling behaviour, which is what bike it aims to do. It is obviously your decision whether to let your child cycle to school, but try to be realistic about the risks, and consider the long-term dangers of inactivity too. What about the health risks of breathing in all those car fumes?

Air pollution from traffic is at its highest in the middle of the road, and studies have shown that, in slow-moving traffic, car passengers are exposed to 2-3 times the level of traffic emissions as cyclists and pedestrians (Environmental Transport Association, 1997). Can my daughter cycle in a skirt?

Yes, as long as she has a girl’s bike frame with a low crossbar and her skirt isn’t too tight, although she might be more comfortable cycling in shorts or tracksuit bottoms and changing at school. If she’s not allowed to wear trousers to school, speak to the head teacher and/ or highlight this problem by talking to your bike it Schools Officer. Will cycling with a heavy bag cause back problems?

The organisation BackCare recommends that a child carries no more than 10 percent of their body weight. This is about 4kg for the average 11-12 year old. A good backpack, worn correctly, will help spread the weight considerably, and the regular exercise of cycling will be much better for their back than sitting in a car. You could consider fitting your child’s bicycle with a rack and panniers for particularly heavy loads. The school should provide lockers for pupils, where some books and equipment can be stored overnight. But if your child plays the cello, he or she may not be able to cycle every day! How am I supposed to get my child on a bike in the morning when it’s a struggle even to get them into the car?

Once children realise it’s their responsibility to get themselves to school on time, you might be surprised by how much more organised and self-motivated they are in the morning! Isn’t it silly for my child to cycle when I’m driving to work anyway?

It may be convenient to drop your child off on your way to work, but are you really doing them a favour? Maybe you could consider cycling to work instead! FURTHER INFO

The Bike Hub funded website portal Bikeforall is packed with links to further information. http://www.bikeforall.netCREDIT WHERE CREDIT"S DUE:

The above text has been adapted from the literature supplied to children by the new Bike It scheme. Bike It is a pilot, cycling-to-school scheme being tested in 40 schools across England. It is supported by the National Cycling Strategy Board, the Department for Transport and funded by the cycle industry from the Bike Hub levy scheme. The scheme is managed by Sustrans.

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