30 May 2011

On yer bike!

I am so proud of my little girl. She managed to ride 7.5 miles of trails around Dalby Forest yesterday, and came home covered in mud and with a grin from ear to ear. At age 5, that's not bad going.

As a family, we've really got into the whole cycling business over the last year. At first, it was just a way to make sure we all got a bit of fresh air and some exercise. But it's been brilliant on so many other levels:
  • it's something we can all do together
  • it's given M a huge confidence boost (and a skill that will be useful for the rest of her life)
  • we've got out into the countryside almost every weekend, seen the seasons change, and experienced a whole lot of wildlife that you just don't get in suburban Gateshead
The other thing we like is that cycling is (mostly) free once you've got a bit of basic kit (ie a bike). We've paid for the odd trip into forests (Dalby being a case in point), but for the most part all we've had to shell out for is petrol.

Here's our top tips for getting kids out riding:

1. Buy a decent bike for them to learn on. We bought M an Islabike, and can't recommend them highly enough. Sadly, there weren't any around second hand (they're like gold dust), so we cobbled together enough Christmas and birthday money to buy one. Once M's grown out of it, we'll either trade it in for a new one with Islabikes themselves, or sell it on ebay, thereby funding the next size up... Why are they so great? They're designed with kids in mind - the bikes are incredibly lightweight (which is brilliant if (a) your child is on the small side like M and (b) you yourself end up having to carry/tow the thing), they have child-sized (and easy to operate) brakes, and they are tough as old boots.

2. Have patience. It took a while for M to learn to ride her bike - she's not the most fearless of kids - but we persevered. What really caught her imagination, and made her determined to do it was what she could potentially do if she learned to ride. We talked about cycling holidays, and said we'd take our bikes to Denmark this summer if she could ride along with us.

The other thing we found was that pottering up and down the street wasn't the most exciting way to learn. What did it for M was heading out into the woods - especially some of the long, straight, relatively smooth paths at Dalby Forest and the riverside route at Newburn - and the cycle routes along the Quayside in Newcastle. There, she could build up some momentum and learn to balance, with us walking/running alongside to give her some confidence if necessary (we did a lot of running...). It took a good couple of months before we got our bikes out too - and even now, we have to be prepared to hop off and push if we're going up a particularly steep bit!

3. Make the rides fun. We've explored Hamsterley Forest, Dalby Forest, Chopwell Woods and the Derwent Valley, as well as done some more urban cycle rides along the rivers in Sunderland and Newcastle/Gateshead. There's been lots to see along the way - we've taken photos, chased butterflies, smelled wild garlic, ridden through puddles and up streams, talked about railways/coal mining/weather, looked at maps, played on adventure playgrounds...the list is endless. One of the most useful things we've recently acquired has been a trip computer (£4.99 from Aldi), which has given M a real sense of achievement about how far we've ridden/how fast we've gone, and which also accurately answers the 'are we nearly there yet?' question...

4. Take lots of snacks/drinks. It's amazing how small children who complain that they are on their last legs can be revived by chocolate or cake. We make 'explorer mix': dried fruit like raisins, apricots or dates chucked into a pot with a few nuts and smarties or bits of chocolate left over from Easter. Flapjack is also popular, and doesn't melt.

5. Let them have some 'bike kit'. You don't have to go out and buy fancy stuff for riding bikes (apart from a decent helmet that's the right size and won't fall off), but M is very proud of her designated 'bike clothes'. That's a pair of leggings (so if she falls off her knees don't get too scraped), a long-sleeved moisture-wicking top (very pink), and a lightweight windproof raincoat - all of which we already owned. What we have gone out and bought her is a pair of kids cycling gloves (£3.99), because (a) she's one of those who grips the handles quite hard downhill, and complained about her hands being sore and (b) after a couple of falls we wanted to protect her hands - grit everywhere is no fun, and can ruin your nice cycle ride.

I should point out that any encouragement/bribes are just what work for us and a five-year-old girl obsessed with kittens, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third and chocolate chip brioche. Yours may be wildly different.

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