Bicycling is a great activity for families, offering benefits for kids that include exercise, freedom and fun. Children build muscle tone, coordination skills, endurance and stamina through cycling. Cycling fosters a sense of independence, and is an excellent lifetime fitness activity. Families that choose to use bicycles instead of the family car for errands and recreation are doing a good deed for the planet.

Next Wednesday (May 8) is National Bike to School Day. Begun in 2012 by the League of American Bicyclists and supported by other organizations such as the Safe Routes to Schools program, school districts and law enforcement agencies across the country will be participating, including DeSoto County schools. Bike-to-school events are about instruction in safe cycling. The events help build an environment that’s more inviting for every walker and bicyclist, young or old, by promoting safer streets and more connected neighborhoods.

Physical education teachers and School Resource Officers will provide safe bicycling instruction. SROs will have helmets at the schools for students needing them.

Right from the start, a bicycle should be introduced not as a toy, but as a means to independence and physical fitness. Teach your child that riding a bicycle is a privilege—just like driving a car—and it comes with many responsibilities. There’s no greater joy than the thrill of getting a first bike, but be sure your child is ready for it, and be sure you provide plenty of instruction. Once a child has mastered balance on the bicycle, he or she still has much to learn about safe riding. Be sure your child’s confidence doesn’t exceed his/her ability.

Proper fit of the bicycle is essential. It’s tempting to buy a bike with which he/she will grow. But if the bike is too large for the child, it presents dangers. The child should be able to touch the ground with both feet when sitting on the saddle. Seats and handlebars usually have some adjustment to fine tune fit. Have the child put one heel on the pedal at its lowest point—there should still be a slight knee bend. If not, the seat and handlebars may need to be adjusted forward or back. The child should also comfortably reach the handlebars. A bicycle that is too small is just as dangerous as one too large.

Always wearing a helmet is a primary responsibility of bicycle safety. The state of Florida, in fact, requires children to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle, and parents are required to make sure that their kids comply with the law. Proper helmet fit is essential for adequate protection in the event of a bicycle accident. Ask your local bike shop or search the internet for instructions on how to properly choose and adjust a child’s bike helmet.

Children should wear shoes for cycling, not sandals or flip-flops. Sneakers with elastic or velcro fitting are best. If the sneakers have laces, double knot the bow so that laces do not become untied and catch in the chain. Beginner cyclists should wear knee and elbow pads. For visibility, add a pennant to your child’s bike. Children need to wear bright clothing, and it’s a good idea to place reflective stickers on their backpacks, helmets, or shoes. If a bicycle is ridden at night, it must have a white light in front and a red light and red reflector at rear. Using flashing lights during the day increases visibility.

Finding a safe place to ride is important. If you live in a quiet neighborhood, make the first forays up and down your street, gradually increasing the territory your child may ride as skills are acquired. A great place to practice cycling is the trail at Morgan Park. It is cool and shaded, and there’s no traffic. Take the time to teach your children about traffic safety and the basic rules of the road. This should include how to properly cross the street with a bike, riding with traffic and not against it, how to share the road with cars if there aren’t bike lanes or sidewalks, riding single file, and signaling before turning. Observe your children as they ride and have them demonstrate their knowledge of Florida bicycle safety skills while they’re riding.

Assess your child’s readiness to ride independently. The child must be fully able to control the bike and understand the dangers of riding. Talk with your children about the dangers of careless bicycling and the importance of safe biking habits. Urge them to avoid unsafe bicycling such as dare-devil riding, regardless of what their peers are doing. Always know when and where your children are riding. And kids should carry identification, including emergency contact information.

Before your child hops on a bike to ride to school for the first time, map out a safe route and familiarize them with it. Look for the safest streets between your residence and the school grounds. Take into consideration high traffic areas, location of crossing guards, sidewalks and bike lanes. Once you’ve figured it out, take your children on a bike ride along the route. Young riders should use the sidewalks if available, but be sure they understand walkers have the right-of-way. Teach your child to use a bell or call out when approaching walkers.

Bicycle Skills Clinics or “bicycle rodeos” are hands-on safety lessons with bike inspections, safety talks and bicycle skills practice. The DeSoto County Sheriff’s Office will offer a free bike rodeo event on June 3 at the Turner Center.

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