Cycling is such an ingrained part of Danish culture that we hardly think about it. Most children can cycle by the time they start school. But innovative thinking is still needed – even in a cycling country like Denmark.
By Lotte Ruby, Danish Cyclists Federation and Camilla Liv Andersen, The Danish Cancer Society
When people from abroad visit Denmark, they are often very surprised by our bicycle culture. How come you cycle so much? they ask. The short answer is: we start early.
In Denmark, we see cycling as a basic skill on par with walking and talking. Most Danish children can cycle by the time they start school – perhaps not perfectly, but they can usually keep their balance and steer a straight line. Children are thus not taught to ride a bicycle at school – it is generally taken for granted that they will be taught at home.
Schools can then start at a slightly higher level by teaching children about traffic rules and road safety, and participate in campaigns which support good cycling habits – for example “All children cycle”, which the Danish Cyclists Federation has carried out with great success for a number of years. This shows some of the strength of the Danish bicycle culture: we get surprised if people cannot ride a bicycle.
Three year old children on two wheels
Bicycle training in an ordinary Danish family starts when a child is between three and six years old. By that time, the child has already been pedaling around on a three wheeler for a while and in recent years often also on a training bike, which is a play bike without pedals. But ultimately pedal power and balance need to be combined so the child learns to master a real bicycle.
The motivation in children is almost always high, especially in families where the adults use a bicycle in their daily life – cycling is very contagious. So it is of less importance that bicycle training methods have been inherited through generations, that they are home-taught and not always completely educationally correct, because the result is almost always that the child learns to cycle. And the moment when the bicycle is finally under control, most children remember as one of their first great victories. It is also a day of joy for parents when their children learn to cycle.
In big cities in particular the cycling family has become a symbol of energy and success in recent years. You often see proud parents walking through the city with children as little as to two years of age pedaling along next to them on small bicycles. Cargo bicycles with space for one or several children have also become a status symbol for the modern metropolitan family – even Crown Prince Frederik has one.
Taking care of the bicycle culture
But the ingrained cycling culture in Denmark also has a drawback. Even here in the stronghold of cycling, we can see that car culture can easily threaten bicycle culture. In addition, children in some immigrant families do not learn to cycle at home, which also presents a challenge. It is thus important that we constantly work on strengthening the bicycle culture and making sure that everybody gets the opportunity to use a bicycle in their daily life.
The list of good reasons for teaching children to cycle is long. We know that children who cycle on a daily basis have significantly better physical fitness than other children, and are a lot less at risk of developing serious lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Cycling also has a positive effect on learning ability, joy of life and social well-being. When they get a bit older, children enjoy the freedom of cycling to school, to spare time activities and to visit friends. Personal transport habits are founded in childhood. Continued positive experiences of cycling can almost create dependence on this healthy and green means of transport, while children who do not cycle are not likely to become cyclists as adults.
Unfortunately the proportion of children who cycle to school has declined in recent decades. The Danish Cyclists Federation, in collaboration with the municipalities, is making great efforts to get day care centres and schools involved in the work of maintaining and strengthening the bicycle culture.
Cycling should be fun
But how do we give our children positive cycling experiences? Play is always a good place to start. We adults can quickly start focusing on rules and technique, but if you give children bicycles and a safe area to cycle in, wonderful things start happening. Children immediately start playing on bicycles – they cycle quickly, they brake, they cycle slowly around in small circles, stand up on the pedals, perhaps try to lift the front wheel off the ground, cycle without their hands on the handlebars or with their feet on the handlebars. This is how children slowly become one with their bicycles – and that is the first step to becoming safe and confident cyclists. Unfortunately not all children have a safe and car-free area to cycle in. They need access to this – and if engaged adults enter the play with challenges and ideas, and if more children can play together, it gets even better.
A good start is an early start
In 2008, the Danish Cyclists Federation published the book “Cykelleg”[Bicycle Play], a guide to how parents and day care centre staff can teach small children to cycle based on play – a project we are following up on with the establishment of a team of instructors with special knowledge of how to initiate fun games involving cycling.
Learning to ride a bicycle can already be started when children are two or three years old. At that age most children can learn to ride a running bike – and then the bicycle play can start. Cycle tag, bicycle circus, skid mark competitions – the opportunities are endless.
Training bikes have become very popular in many Danish families and day care centres. Many children, parents and day care centre staff have quickly adopted the idea of bicycle play, which bodes well for future generations of cyclists.
As schoolchildren they will have no problems with learning traffic rules and participating in bicycle campaigns - and later safely cycle to school by themselves.
Cycling towards health
Everyday cycling is not only an enjoyable way of commuting where people interact with the city and each other, it is also one of the most effective ways of promoting good health. For example, cycling reduces the risk of serious conditions such as heart disease, some forms of cancer, high blood pressure, obesity and the most common form of diabetes.
Health is one argument for making cities more bikeable, economy is another. The economic pay back of making a city more bikeable is 2 – 7 times the invested amount. Savings primarily derive from health costs such as less hospitalization and less work related sickness absence. Thus there are many health related reasons for encouraging politicians, architects and urban planners to design bikeable urban areas in order to make the bicycle the preferred mode of transportation - also for children.