Here’s a video of a young boy being taught to ride a bike. (It’s in Dutch – but you really don’t need to know the language.)
The story is familiar to many of us from our own childhoods, and from our experience as parents. The wobbly starts. The crashes. The fallings-off. The lesson that slowing down – a natural response to speed-induced fear – is in fact a really bad idea. And eventually, the triumphant moment when the skill is mastered and the child rides off into the sunset (kind of).
I’ve seen a number of videos like this one recently: the three-year-old girl shimmying up a doorframe; the girl doing her first big ski-jump; the time-lapse video of a baby playing with a room full of toys. And there is a clear message in each: that children have an appetite for competence.
Make no mistake, that’s a good message for us grown-ups to hear. But I want to bring to your attention something you may have missed in this video. The child learning to cycle was not just getting help from his family. Many other people were also behind his journey to becoming a competent cyclist.
For instance, how about the neighbours, who were happy to let the family take over the path for their lessons, apparently untroubled by the noise and inconvenience? Perhaps we should also thank Dutch parents as a group too, for their role in creating a culture in which parents and relatives are not overly concerned about being blamed for every bump and scrape their children may experience. (And to forestall any “why isn’t the child wearing a helmet?” comments, I want to point out that 1) there are no helmet laws in the Netherlands, and in fact very low levels of helmet use, and 2) if you look carefully at the evidence – as I did [pdf link] – the jury is out on the safety benefits of helmet-wearing, for adults and for children.)
And let’s not forget the planners and architects who put in those wide pedestrian pathways in their neighbourhood in the first place, and the politicians whose decisions made this happen. It is hard to learn how to cycle if you do not have safe, traffic-free paved areas to practise in.
The deeper story behind this video is that giving children a taste of freedom is not just a job for individual family members. Of course, parents and carers make the final judgement calls. But they will only be prepared to untie the apron strings if they have the support and blessing of other parents, the wider community, decision-makers and society as a whole. In short, it takes a village – a big village – to teach a child to cycle.
One final point: in a 2007 UNICEF study of the well-being of children in rich nations, the Netherlands came top of the list. The UK came bottom, while the USA was second-bottom. (Australia did not feature, as it did not even collect enough relevant data.)
I cannot help but think that some of the reasons why the Netherlands topped this chart can be seen in the video. The Dutch place a lot of value on their children’s everyday freedoms, and there is also widespread support for the goal of creating places that allow children to explore, have adventures and get around on their own. Studies show that a sense of autonomy – of having some control over one’s destiny – is a crucial part of what makes children feel good about themselves. What could be a more concrete, visible expression of autonomy and freedom than the ability to get into the saddle, push down on the pedals and cycle off towards the horizon?
Thanks to @katsdekker on twitter for bringing the video – found on Angela’s Bike Blog – to my attention.
I never noticed the lack of helmet, but my first thought was, look at those wonderful even, car free areas that are ideal for learning to ride a bike! We are close to something like this (so lucky), but it’s a 10 min walk away which is a massive barrier for a 3/4 year old pushing her bike.
Ah, what a smashing film! I still recall my own sense of joy and wonder as I finally ‘got it’ at age 5. In recent years it’s been our pleasure to help our own children, and those of our neighbours, to get the bicycle freedom bug. We are lucky enough to live in a place a little like the neighbourhood in the video, although children use the roads for learning to cycle, not pedestrianised areas. Through regular use of the roads as play spaces, drivers (who are, after all, our neighbours and many are parents themselves) have learned to be more cautious and slow as they approach us. Children are also learning road sense – perhaps more slowly than they might if they lived on a busier road and not a cul de sac, but in an environment where they feel safer because their friends, of all ages, are there to support and nurture.
Reblogged this on Nothingbutgenius.com.
Thank you for this blog post about the importance of children’s autonomy. I have reblogged it on Nothingbutgenius.com.
Thanks for the reblog Dr Elsie, and for the comment Jules (and I’ve no idea why WordPress didn’t just post it straight up – its spam filter is a mystery to me).
While one has to be beware of stereotypes, their traits usually have some basis in truth, and the Stereotypical Cloggie is not only taller than us and their English better, but they’re pragmatic.
My experience of being married to one bears this out, and knowing that learning to ride a bike like this worked fine ever since there have been bikes they’re not especially keen on stopping while they make sure everyone’s encased in armour. Lots of open water in NL so the reaction is be careful that children learn to swim early on, rather than create an impossible fencing job or walk around in buoyancy aids. Life has rough edges that will need to be dealt with, and sometimes dealing with them is actually fun and a source of pride.
Thanks Peter – I tend to agree. I’m sure you recall my blog post on the playgrounds that rip up the safety rules, including one Dutch play area located on an island. (My most popular post, as it goes.)
“Trainer wheels” are really bad. They train a child to NOT balance, or to balance badly. The only way to teach a kid to ride is to get them on a balance bike, or to modify an existing bike as this video shows. Remove the pedals, and lower the saddle so the kid can place both feet on the ground. Then they teach themselves.
Hi John – while I agree that trainer wheels are not so great, it’s tangential to my main point.
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Not only does the Netherlands top child wellbeing and cycling in Europe, but Sweden, Denmark and Finland are also in the top four for both child wellbeing and levels of cycling! (As highlighted in the SDC Fairness in a Car Dependent Society report: http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/data/files/publications/fairness_car_dependant.pdf)
Perhaps if the UK starts getting serious about creating safe and attractive environments for cyclists then we’ll also end up with happier children?
Awesome video. BTW, the Netherlands is a great place!
Very helpful article. thanks for sharing