Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Up to Something

We've been up to something fun around here.  And like so many of our other favorite spring activities (gardening, park trips, playing in the creek), this one involves mud.

We're working on a new bike shelter!

We've been parking lots of bikes in Austin's shop, which has made it difficult for him to get work done there.  At the start of his spring break, we held a small work party to get things going.  Many burritos,  pulled pork sandwiches, and beers later, we've made a lot of progress.

 Austin's younger brother, Jake, spent the weekend with us and did a big chunk of the back-breaking labor.  Little and Big idolize him, so his presence also helped to keep our littlest workers happy.

Austin's dad, Graig, was in town for work.  Even though he wasn't feeling well, he hung gutters on the bike shed and let the kids play in his very popular truck.

Cindy helped with tricky pathway work, and with crucial dress-up and story-time portions of the construction.  (Caring for children is an important part of any family project!)  Her husband Scott was here, too, though he somehow evaded capture on film.

Big insisted on dressing just like Papa for the duration of the project.  We had to wash his outfit each evening so that he could feel a part of the process in his carpentry clothes.  Little enjoyed watching from the window when he wasn't helping outside.

Grandma Mona also lent a hand with various tasks, though she was nursing a cold, too.  She took most of these photos, as my camera broke over the weekend.

Our family has a very tight budget, and we certainly couldn't afford to hire someone else to help with a project like this one.  With busy work and school schedules, we don't have much time for big projects, either.  I think it's fitting that our shelter for such an old-fashioned, practical means of transportation was constructed in the spirit of a barn-raising.  Many thanks to all who joined us!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Learning to Ride a Big-Kid Bike

After two years of regular balance-biking, we've started helping Big get the feel of a big-kid bike.  Choosing a balance bike for Big when he turned two was a no-brainer for us.  As a teacher, I've heard a lot about the benefits of balance activities for children's development.  Did you know that the more intelligent a species is, the more its young play balance-oriented games?  And does this mean that cyclists are a more highly evolved group of humans?  (Obviously I'm joking, folks.)

Helping Big learn to ride a pedal bike has been a little more challenging than I remember balance biking to be in the early stages.  Big has always been on the slower end of normal in terms of his mastery of gross-motor physical milestones (walking, running, etc.), so I'm not certain that he's completely developmentally ready for pedal biking right now.  (I've read that most kids are ready sometime between 4 and 6 years of age.)  He absolutely loves working at it, though, so we're doing our best to give him lots of opportunities to practice.  We've been reading tips from other parents on the internet, asking friends for advice, and improvising a little here and there to see what seems to work.

Our basic strategy has three simple parts:
  1. Continued balance biking for fun, for maintaining a sense of balance, and for teaching new skills
  2. Practice with pedaling when his bike is connected to mine via the Follow Me Tandem coupler
  3. Practice pedaling and balancing on gentle slopes with a parent running alongside (usually holding the back of the bike most of the way)
There's a spot near our house with a nice little slope to it where we like to go.  One parent runs alongside Big, mostly helping him get the feel of pushing off with his feet and then starting to pedal.  We do hold his bike with one hand (typically on the back of the saddle) to help him feel more confident and get up a little speed.  Once he's had a few minutes of practice, we'll start to let go for a few seconds at a time.  We always let him know before we start that we're going to begin letting him balance the bike on his own.

In my view, the most important thing we're helping Big do in these practice sessions is build confidence and an image of himself as a bike rider.  As with teaching children to read, I believe it's important for early experiences to be pleasant and build an identity of competence.  We try to offer him lots of specific, positive feedback about his efforts to help him feel more confident.  He's proud to be on a big kid bike, so it's easy to keep him feeling good.

One tip we gathered early on was to help Big learn how to lean into a turn.  When I asked Paul Adkins for advice about teaching kids to ride, he mentioned that this could be a tricky skill for kids to master.  (He and his wife Monica have taught three of their own children to ride bikes, so they have had plenty of experience.)  We help Big get the feel of turning on the pedal bike, but he actually gets the most practice with leaning into turns on his balance bike.  On our way to the park, we seek out driveways with a gentle slope, and Big bikes to the top.  He then glides down towards me (I stand at the bottom of the driveway, right in front of him), and turns to avoid me and get back onto the sidewalk.  He loves this game!  Neighbors on our route, I hope you don't mind all the hubbub in your driveways.

I think that the most important thing I can do at this point is to figure out a routine for pedal bike practice that works well for our family.  We don't practice as often as we'd like to, mostly because we need two adults to really make this activity work (one to help Big, one to occupy Little).  One downside to Austin's graduate studies is that our time all together as a family is more limited than we would like it to be.  My friend Heather and I are both helping our boys practice with their pedal bikes at the moment, and when we compare notes, we always remind ourselves that consistent practice is what our boys most need.  Short of giving Little some kind of really unusual treat to keep him busy, I haven't yet figured out a way to keep him happy while Big and I practice riding together.  Heather, maybe we should have some bike-practice playdates at the park?

If you're looking for more information about teaching children to ride a bike, I recommend you check out some of these resources:
  • Sheldon Brown wrote a nice tutorial about teaching children to ride bikes.
  • Kathleen Wilker wrote for Momentum Magazine blog about making a homemade balance bike for her daughter, and about how her daughter learned to ride a bike on her own.  (Kathleen, if you're reading this, I didn't realize that your blog is called "Families on Bikes" until after I had begun my Friday Family on Bikes interviews!  Oops.)
  • I enjoyed reading this article from The Exploratorium (a fantastic science museum in San Fransisco and a fixture of my early childhood) about what really happens when we steer our bicycles.
    While I'm figuring out ways to support Big as he learns to ride a pedal bike, I also get to enjoy watching Little discover the balance bike.

    I hope you've been enjoying your bike as much as my two little fellas are enjoying theirs!  And if you have a favorite trick for teaching kids to ride bikes, please send it my way.

      Friday, March 4, 2011

      Friday Family on Bikes: Samantha, Andrew, and Little Ding

      It's my pleasure to share this interview with Samantha, the blogger behind the informative and cheery family cycling blog Ding Ding Let's Ride.  Samantha's blog includes describes not only her experiences as a year-round bike commuter in Chicago, but also a wealth of resources for adaptive cyclists.  Samantha's blog is a new favorite of mine, and I hope you'll enjoy learning more about her family and their bike adventures in Chicago, just as I have.

      Samantha, Little Ding, and Andrew
      Who are you?  Introduce yourselves, please.

      I am Samantha, aka Ms. Ding of the family cycling blog Ding Ding Let's Ride.  I write about the Chicago city biking adventure of myself, my partner Andrew (aka Mr. Ding) and his 6 year-old son, Little Ding. 
      What is your family bike setup?  How is it working for you?  How has it changed as your child has grown? 

      I've been riding a mountain bike for over 20 years and this past fall I bought a Dutch Workcycles Omafiets which is now my primary bike.  I made the switch because I spend most of my time these days riding around the city to work, on errands, to the grocery store, and on rides with my guys.  And when Andrew and I get in a “date night” now and then, it's usually via bike.  I wanted an upright bike that would be easier on my clothes (fenders, skirt guard, chain guard, etc,) that I could ride in more normal clothes, ride in dresses, and lug gear and groceries.  Andrew has a  hybrid and a cruiser bike.

      We were carting Little Ding around in a Burley trailer, but he was starting to outgrow that last year so we looked around for a bike for him.  He has Cerebral Palsy, so finding a bike for him was difficult.  Luckily, we found a great place that adapts bikes for kids and we got him a very cool adapted kids bike that was not nearly as expensive as the $1000-$3000 that many adaptive bikes cost.  It's great to have him riding his own bike with us - he rides on the sidewalk right now, usually with Andrew behind him, and me on the street.  The downside of having him on his own bike now though, is that it does limit the distances we can cover as he is only able to ride about two miles total – generally a one mile ride to a place, then a break, then ride back.  This summer we'll be working on his endurance.  A cargo bike or family tandem would be nice, but we don't have the storage space for something like that. 

      Ms. Ding and Little Ding.  Little Ding's adaptive bike is in the foreground.

      Why do you choose to ride bikes together?

      I got rid of my car when I moved to Chicago in 1996.  You don't really need a car in the city, I didn't want to deal with the hassle and expense of maintaining a car in the city, and I already had a bike.  When I met Andrew, he loved that I was car-free, and he dug out an old bike and started commuting and riding with me as much as he could.

      When we all moved into our family 'tree house' (our apartment is on the 2nd floor, surrounded by beautiful, old trees), we wanted to keep riding as much as possible and include Little Ding in as many riding activities as we could, hoping he would share our love of being out and about in the city, on our bikes.  Andrew had a car, and though we tried to work out a way to get rid of it, we could not.  We have to run Little Ding to various therapy appointments around the city, and back and forth between his mom's house and ours, and even though we we live about 15 minutes away by car, it's not an easy quick bike-ride between the two homes, especially when we're lugging all his gear (bike, wheelchair, etc), so we've kept the car. 

      What kinds of trips to you commonly make by bike?
      • Commuting to work, both regular 9-5 shifts and even Mr. Ding's on-call work, year-round
      • Grocery shopping 
      • Riding to the park/playground
      • The “Guys ride” to their favorite neighborhood hotdog stand
      • Andrew and I - out to meet friends for drinks, dinner, brunch, lunch
      • Weekend errands, shopping
      • Baseball games (the Cubs have a bike valet service, hoping the White Sox get one)
      • Because of his CP, Little Ding's feet get worn out walking in his braces. He can however, ride a bike a bit further.  We sometimes drive to places like a neighborhood festival or parade, park the car wherever, and let Little Ding ride to the venue or sometimes at the venue, saving some wear and tear on his legs.  We walk alongside or behind him, or bring our bikes too.  We've worked out  the same sort of strategy to go the beach or the Lincoln Park Zoo (both locations that we can ride to ourselves, but are too far for Little Ding to ride all the way from our house).   Andrew works near the zoo/beach, so we are lucky to be able to park at his office.  It's worked out well as a wheelchair alternative.
      Are there other modes of transport your family frequently uses?

      We take public transportation often as well, and Little Ding loves riding the bus.  Since we are only two blocks from a major bus line, he can walk to the stop if he doesn't have to do too much more walking afterward. 

      Would you share a great moment in your family biking experience with us? 

      Hmm...there've been some good ones. Perhaps the first time we hooked up the Burley to Andrew's bike and rode to the Zoo on a beautifully sunny Saturday afternoon.

      We parked our bikes and locked them up, and converted the trailer to a stroller and headed into the zoo.  It was awesome.  We took our time strolling around the zoo because Little Ding could hop back into the trailer and be quite comfortable when he needed, and we had all our gear there and it did not feel cumbersome.  There was a kids concert that day that we did not know about that was cool, and then we discovered the kids fountain.  Little Ding took his socks and braces off and hopped around in the water spray with all the other kids and then climbed into the trailer and went to sleep on the ride home.  It was such a great day and it was the day we realized we could really make biking around the city as a family work.  

      Do you have any tips or tricks to pass on to other bike-riding families?

      Get a Burley or cargo bike!!  Kids love being toted around...who wouldn't?  Bring some water, and some sort of toy for the younger kids, it helps them get used to it when you start out.  If they are anything like Little Ding though, they'll love the ride and fall asleep at the end.  He loved napping in the trailer.  We pulled him around in the trailer in the fall and winter too – just bundled him up and grabbed an extra blanket and wrapped it around his legs and feet.  I've got a great picture of him in the trailer a couple of years ago after we stopped at the grocery store on the way home in February.  We stuffed all the groceries around him – it was kinda funny. 

      I love all the adaptive cycling resources on your blog!  Where did you start your search for the best adaptive bike for Little Ding?  What advice do you have for other families interested in adaptive cycling?

      We started researching adaptive bikes last spring. Little Ding got an adaptive trike to use in physical therapy (we had been trying to figure out how to adapt the one we had) and he took to it immediately – it was exciting. That got us looking for bikes, or something to get him riding with us beyond the Burley.

      We found a used trail-a-bike and took it to The Bike Rack, out in St. Charles, Illinois – they're a bike shop we discovered that sells and maintains adaptive bikes as well as standard bikes (mostly Trek and Gary Fisher).  They were not fond of trail-a-bikes for special needs kids, or at least one with CP, and as they showed us how they were going to adapt it, we could see how there would be a balance issue with Little Ding.  We didn't think we could afford one of the types of adaptive bikes we'd seen, but they showed us a regular kids bike that they had adapted for another customer, and Little Ding tried it out and it worked! We thought it would be the way to go.  We didn't have to buy a new bike from them to adapt, but we did.  They had a cool orange bike in stock, and that being his favorite color, it seemed like a no-brainer.  There's a post on my blog with all the details of his bike, if you want more information.

      Doing the research for his bike, and watching how happy he was on his bike, got me motivated to start the blog.  Once we talked to the people at The Bike Rack, and got his bike, I started doing a lot of research online, and trying to talk to people about kids adaptive bikes.  It was realyl hit or miss.  You really have to look hard to find the bikes beyond the one or two brands that come up in every search.  That's one reason I started my resource pages.

      Some communities around the country have great programs for adaptive cycling, others not so much.  You really need to check with your local park district, as well as with the hospital or rehabilitation clinic that you are familiar with.  You have to ask around sometimes.  I didn't feel like it was easy for me to find groups and events.  I try to keep up with what's out there, so that other people can find the info and resources more quickly than I did.

      Little Ding and Samantha's brother
      Are there any changes (to path or wayfinding systems, auto speed limits, bike boulevards, lighting, etc.) that you would you like to see to make bicycling more convenient, accessible, and safe for families in your area?  Are there particular types of infrastructure that improve access for cyclists on adaptive bikes?

      Separate cycle tracks, and slowzones , as well as good bike parking are the things that I'm most interested in.  More people will ride bikes as transportation if it is seen as safe.  Not everyone thinks riding in traffic is safe.  Adaptive riders , with unique styles of bikes, benefit even more from separate bike lanes.  So many adaptive riders can't drive themselves, but can ride a bike.  Just think of the independent mobility they have if they can ride their own bike to work or school.

      Good bike parking of course follows.  That means the right kind of bike racks, placed so that there is room for multiple bikes of different types to be locked up in a secure fashion. 

      What else do you think we should know?

      I am trying to put together a family bike ride for any family AND families with adaptive riders, this spring or summer, here in Chicago.  I hope to coordinate with the local Kidical Mass folks.  I'm looking for interested families as well as adaptive bike manufacturers who want to demo their bikes.  I have a couple already lined up.  Any ideas, interests, thoughts are welcome.

      Little Ding, where is your favorite place to ride your bike to?

      The Zoo, closely followed by the park/playground. 

      Thank you, Samantha!  It was a pleasure to get to know your beautiful family.

      *All the images in this post belong to Samantha of Ding Ding Let's Ride.  You can find more of her photos on her blog.

      Thursday, March 3, 2011

      Where My Little Ones Will Ride

       My kids just continue to grow up lately.  Isn't it funny how that happens?  You think that you've got age 2 1/2 all figured out -- just how to finesse a reluctant visit to the potty chair, or how to help someone take a deep breath at the end of a tantrum...and then everything changes again.

      We are thinking about kindergarten for Big next fall, since he'll turn five in June.  (Five!  I can't believe it.)  Transportation has figured heavily into our discussions.  As I map out some of the possible routes to school and consider the conditions we might be cycling in (dark, early mornings, with impatient auto traffic), I find myself wishing for little improvements.  I'd like to see our gold-rated cycling city transformed into the kind of place where I'll feel comfortable letting my sons ride their bikes around town on their own once they are a little older.

      What if our bike boulevards looked a little more like Portland's neighborhood greenways?  I'm sure that anyone who has ridden a bike down 15th Ave has wished that the city would change the orientation of a few stop signs so that it's easier to get across some of those busy north-south streets.  And some serious traffic calming efforts would make places like Monroe friendlier for kids and families on bikes.  (I occasionally see one of my former students, now a teenager, riding his bike along the sidewalk on Monroe.  We can teach people over and over that it's safer to ride in the streets, but younger and less confident cyclists will continue to ride on sidewalks until we offer them alternatives that really feel safe.)

      Cycle tracks, pedestrian refuge islands, path connections -- I want the city to know how I think Eugene could help families like mine get around better on bikes or on foot.  And I want to learn more about what my neighbors in other parts of the city need, too.   If you'd like to help Eugene grow up a little, join us at the Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan Open House tonight.  It's a drop-in event at Saint Mary's Catholic Church, downtown by the library and the transit center.  See you there, sometime between 4-7 pm.