Program promotes pedal-powered pupils

NEW HAVEN — The rapturous sounds of children bicycling carried across the leaf-scattered fields outside New Haven’s Beeman Elementary School last week, where students took advantage of 46 free bikes provided by Local Motion — the Burlington-based nonprofit promoting people-powered transportation — as part of its new Bike Smart Loaner Program.
For some students, it was a fun and insightful week of class with wellness teacher Patty Whittemore, but for others it was groundbreaking.
Take second-grader Sasha Meyers. He’s been trying to ride a “two wheeler” for almost two years now. Earlier this past year, Meyers said, he took his training wheels off, but hasn’t had much luck riding more than 20 feet. Then, last week while practicing at school, something clicked.
“It was kind of scary at first, but then I rode around the whole field and I rode back,” he said. “It took like one round of practice and then I got pretty good at it … I’ve got to show my dad.”
Beeman is the first school in Addison County to take advantage of Local Motion’s one-week loaner program, which is free to schools within a 50-mile radius of Burlington. Growing out of a Burlington summer program to enhance kids’ bike skills and teach them safety measures, the loaner program took these bikes to schools for the first time this year.
“Basically it’s a way to get more mileage out of this incredible resource,” said program manager Jason Van Driesche. “In the first year, we used the bikes during the summer and then they just sat during the fall … so the loaner program was conceived as this way to get the bikes out there, get them used and get more kids riding.”
As part of the Vermont Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Center program, Beeman was told about this development. Local Motion wanted to work with schools that could implement the program during and after classes. Beeman fit the bill.
“The role of physical education has changed in recent years,” said Principal Steve Flint. “So we’re trying to find some healthy lifetime activities (to engage the kids) and to do so in a safe way. This opportunity just happened to fall into our laps and we’re grateful for that.”
In the future, other Addison County schools may also take part.
“We’re pretty full in the fall,” said Van Driesche. “But in a month or so we’ll start scheduling the spring and we’d love to hear now from those schools that are interested.”
The timing of the loaner program couldn’t have been better for Beeman. The bikes were integrated into the school’s annual health fair last Tuesday and were used for the school’s bike derby at the Addison County fairgrounds on Saturday.
During the week, each student had the opportunity to ride the bikes three times in Whittemore’s wellness class, which combines physical education with health education, and four times if they stayed after school. Local Motion gave Whittemore some extra training, she taught the kids basic safety and biking skills, and then the kids took it from there.
“It benefits kids all the way around: socially, emotionally and physically,” said Whittemore. “The confidence building is amazing.”
She told the story of little kindergartener Carter Markwell who surprised all of his peers.
“We thought maybe the bike was a little bit too big, and a lot of the kids thought he probably couldn’t ride, but he got right up and was riding around the whole time,” she said. “The other kids asked, ‘How did you do that? How did you do that?’ and he said, ‘I just tried. My daddy told me if I try I can.’”
To improve bike safety, students learned the “ABC” bike check and how to adjust their helmets properly.
“ABC, which is air, brakes and chain,” said sixth-grader Hannah Martin. “You check all those and make sure they’re OK so you can ride.”
Once the students had performed all of the necessary safety checks, kids comfortable biking alone pedaled out onto the school’s soccer field, weaving through obstacle courses, learning how to break properly and practicing their “power starts.”
The students were overwhelmingly pleased with the opportunity to ride a bike at school, and all those surveyed said they felt they had improved their balance and would be safer on a bike. While some students had a robust biking background, others did not.
“There are some students that we’ve learned through this (program) just haven’t had the experience to ride a bike either on two wheels and sometimes at all,” said Flint. “I think that’s the nature of living in a rural community. If you live by a major road like Route 7 and don’t have much of a driveway, there aren’t many opportunities to ride a bike.”
But last week, those kids got a chance.
For more information about Local Motion’s Bike Smart Loaner Program, head to www.localmotion.org/education/bikeskillstraining/loanerprogram.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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