Let’s give our kids the cycling freedom we enjoyed when we were young

Riding bikes is an important part of children’s development

Hands up who was just a little bit addicted to the TV program Stranger Things? It wasn’t just the excellent, spooky storyline and incredible attention to period detail that gripped my attention (and if you haven’t seen it, you really should check it out). For me, I recognised myself in those kids.

Not the monster fighting part — well, not in real life, anyway — but that freedom to go off on your bike with your friends. I’m guessing it’s the same for a lot us bike-crazy people. A bundle of sandwiches, a bottle of fizzy drink and a whole day to do with as we pleased were formative parts of our youth.

Facilities like pump tracks take up little room and can be used by kids of all ages
Facilities like pump tracks take up little room and can be used by kids of all ages

We were lucky, because sadly kids today don’t seem to have that.

In the park near where I live there are now signs all over the place and they say ‘No cycling’.

Children today spend half the time outside that their parents did when they were younger

When my partner was young, he and his friends would play in that park on their bikes for hours. They learnt to ride steps by rolling down a little staircase next to the ornamental pond. Later, when their skills and confidence grew (and with a little egging on from each other) they’d try to clear them completely with a good run-up.

But they’d always have someone on lookout duties to make sure there was no one coming and if anyone did walk by, they’d stop and stand to the side.

Now, you can almost sense the disapproval and anger that any congregation of 12-year-olds on bikes might attract from passers by.

Years ago, we used to have a BMX track near us that the kids would all play on. In the evenings it started to get used as a gathering place for ‘youths’ and then the council bulldozed it, but didn’t put anything back in its place. So where are kids supposed to ride now?

Parents are understandably worried about letting their children ride on roads, which are busy and getting busier every year. More parked cars make playing in even quiet streets riskier. For kids in cities, with more traffic, more people and less access to parks and green spaces, the opportunities can be even fewer.

This is a problem for many reasons.

Playing outside gives kids a connection with nature that’s important for their development yet children today spend half the time outside that their parents did when they were younger, according to research conducted by The National Trust in the UK. 

There’s the growing ‘obesity epidemic’ in the UK and US. A national survey of 2,000 parents in the UK found that 74 percent of 5 to 12 year olds spent less than 60 minutes playing outside each day, and active play — time away from screens and tech — is important for physical health as well as mental health.

And finally, there’s that harder to quantify element: the sense of freedom that comes with taking yourself off to play on your bike. Bikes give kids independence and the opportunity to explore, as well as giving them first hand experience of risk and reward.

Yes, there will be crashes, but getting a little bit hurt, learning why it happened, that you’re going to be okay and that grazes heal is an important part of growing up. If you never fall over, you never find out exactly what you are capable of.

Just think: local pump tracks could be where our future world champs get their first taste for riding!
Just think: local pump tracks could be where our future world champs get their first taste for riding!

Equally, survey after survey shows that parents do want their kids to have more time outside. The problem is one of accessibility and opportunity. Fewer local facilities mean that only those lucky enough to either have something within easy reach or parents with the time and resources to take the kids to somewhere that does get those opportunities. 

But the picture isn’t all doom and gloom. One big thing that’s changed in my lifetime is access to woods and forests.

Gone are the days (mostly) when the warden would chase my friends out of the local woods where they were trying to build their own versions of the northshore sections they’d seen on videos and in magazines.

Now, the Forestry Commission, which owns and manages huge swathes of woodland in the UK and Ireland, positively encourage riders. Not only are there miles and miles of specially created trails, but also family trails and kids' skills areas. It even allows certain sections to be given over to trail building, where people can sculpt and maintain their own trails and features, within reason.

That still doesn’t help most people — trails centres aren’t exactly located conveniently for most of the population to pop to after school.

But here’s the thing. We, the kids who had all that freedom and fun, are now the grown-ups and we have the power to do something about it. You can petition your local council to let kids ride bikes in parks. You can make sure that there are parks and places and facilities for them to use.

There’s a great case in point I’ve come across recently. Keen mountain biker Jennifer Purcell has two bike-mad kids aged 2 ½ and 4 ½. After school they drive 20 miles to the Rush Skatepark’s after school club or the little outdoor pump track 20 miles away in another village. They’re lucky to have the time and resources to get there, but other kids aren’t so lucky.

Riding bikes should be an important part of childhood and we should protect that freedom and access
Riding bikes should be an important part of childhood and we should protect that freedom and access

So Purcell joined forces with two local ‘riding dads’, Ben Leach and Andy Vodden, to get things changed. Leach had heard about plans to redevelop a local recreation ground and got permission from the parish council to build a pump track. The trio formed themselves into a club, BMX Wroughton, to facilitate grant applications and get the pump track built. They’ve had offers of support from a local company to donate some of the building material and are applying to Sport England and other organisations to raise the funds.

Once built, it’ll be a facility that kids of all ages in the community can use.

“It's going to be a very short walk from the local infant, junior and secondary schools so hundreds of children will have access to it,” Purcell told BikeRadar. “I am looking forward to seeing them all make use of it and really hope that the schools could look to incorporate it into sports sessions.”

Can you imagine? Bikes in your P.E. lessons? I would have loved that!

We need to protect our parks and open spaces, we need to ensure our recreation grounds don’t just get turned into housing estates with no place to play and we need to reclaim that sense of freedom and adventure and escape, and make sure that kids get their share of that.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why TV programmes like Stranger Things resonate so much with lots of us; we can remember those innocent days of adventuring on our bikes with our friends. It would be a real shame for our kids, and their kids, not to have that, too.

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