Middle school bike program helps kids with fitness and focus in Portage

Kids in Portage Central and Portage West Middle Schools have been learning that focus, fun, and fitness are as easy as riding a bike.

The "Riding for Focus" curriculum has been running for three years at Portage Central, and one year at Portage West. Students from 6th to 8th grades get to learn the basics of bikes in physical education classes.

Wearing a helmet, rules of the road, maintenance, and basic pedaling techniques are all a part of the curriculum. But there's also a behavioral/emotional angle, too. The program is based on studies that show biking reduces ADHD symptoms in youth.

Portage physical education instructors get near-emotional when they talk about it. John Dunlop, PE instructor at PCMS, says that according to his principal Jeff Hamilton, disciplinary issues have decreased in the three years of the program.

In a pre-COVID activity, Portage Central Middle School students learn Wearing a helmet, rules of the road, maintenance, basic pedaling as they improve their mental focus.It's just a better all-around environment at our school. And I'm not saying it's because of this, but I'm tellin' ya what, it hasn't hurt," Dunlop says. 

For Dunlop himself, biking is "kinda saving my life, literally. I can't explain it, really."

Dunlop did a bit of mountain biking before he began his teaching career in the early '90s, but after then, "I didn't do much at all."

When he began teaching biking to his students, he got back on the trails himself. "The whole thing with this program is, it's to address attention deficit disorder of students. And I definitely have that," Dunlop says with a laugh. "I think with me, mountain biking helps to stimulate me and just wakes me up." 

COVID-19 put the brakes on the classes, but as people try to find activities to do in this new world, more bikes are on the roads and trails.

The program includes bike helmets for all students.The bike program ended, along with everything else in the schools, in March. 

"We don't know what the fall holds for us, if the kids are going to be distance learning," Dunlop says. "If we're not going to be able to see the kids face-to-face, hopefully we're going to be able to do something with the program."

He notes that bikes in this new normal have been flying off store and bike shop shelves. "You can't get 'em!"

More people are pedaling, Paul Selden, president of Bike Friendly Kalamazoo says, so there is more of a need for bike education and BFK is willing to invest in those who are offering such education. 

BFK's Bike-Booster Mini-Grants are awarded to local groups committed to education in bicycle safety, as well as expanding ridership. The grants will go out this year, though some programs they went towards last year can't happen fully due to the pandemic.

In 2019, the first year of the grants, Open Roads received a grant for bikes, helmets, and locks for their youth Earn-A-Bike program. The BFK grant went to bikes for Portage West Middle School; for Portage Central the grant went towards a bike rack to transport bikes for repairs and weekend rides.

The "Riding for Focus" program is "incredibly innovative," Selden says. 

At BFK meetings, people have long been asking, "Why can't we get a bike program in the schools? Kids use it, it's a safety thing, it's a recreational thing, it ties into physical fitness," Selden says.

"For years, we tried to make inroads in the public schools, but the curriculum has been so tightly wound, so tightly developed to address needs that schools have, needs for No Child Left Behind and everything else -- all good reasons, but we couldn't get in."  

Outriding ADHD

"Riding for Focus"  was developed and is funded by Specialized Bicycles. It's under Outride, "a public nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of youth through cycling," its website states.

According to the Outride site, Specialized founder and CEO Mike Sinyard has struggled with ADHD throughout his life. Difficulty with focus "seemed to dissipate after returning from a ride," he found.

In 2012 Specialized funded neurological studies that showed youth, after riding bikes, had "increased attention spans, boosted moods, and of course, improved fitness and body mass index."  

They developed "Riding for Focus," and through grants of bikes, helmets, and other equipment to schools, got it in 143 middle schools in the U.S. and Canada. 

Dunlop has been teaching PE for 27 years, "and I would argue that there are very few things you could do in a phys-ed setting that address so many things for students..... balance, coordination, social, emotional. There's nothing else that does that." 

Freedom and Family

Portage West Middle Schools PE instructor Jim Righter says bike riding is all about "a sense of freedom, especially for kids."

He continues, "bikes are a powerful thing. They offer you a sense of freedom that you just don't get, even in a car."

Righter tells his students, "If I was to drive my car across the grass at West Middle School, I'd probably get arrested. But I can ride a bike through there."

Though the middle school's first year with the program was cut short by COVID-19, Righter  says, "The limited anecdotal data that I have is that kids being on bikes has been nothing but beneficial to my students." The research backing the program "indicates that riding a bike is a strong indicator of success for kids. Not just physically, but also mentally."

There are so many distractions for students today, Righter says. They can seem motionless, locked to various screens. At those active early-teen years, pre-drivers'-license, they need parents to drive them if they want to go anywhere. 

"But once kids are on a bike, and they feel that freedom -- there's not a significant replacement in our physical education program that can give kids that same amount of freedom, that same amount of, a sense of accomplishment," he says. "Once they learn, they can go anywhere." 

Biking is a transferable skill from school to everyday life. They also play pickleball in his classes, but "not many kids, I think, are playing pickleball outside of school," Righter says. 

Dunlop says biking becomes part of home life. "You can do it with your families," he says. "I have parents who'll start riding again, with their kids, parents that may've been sedentary and not doing much, then all of a sudden the student will go home and say, 'hey, I wanna ride bikes...' Families are getting more involved, together." 

Both Dunlop and Righter say, for some of their students, they've been the first to teach them how to ride a bike.

Dunlop estimates he's taught 30 kids how to ride. One student sticks out in his mind. A boy, "he's one of triplets, he's got two sisters. All three of them did not know how to ride bikes. They were non-riders. The learned how to ride bikes in our program," he says. "He said he bought a bike over the summer, he was riding almost every day, said he rode the entire Portage Bikeway Trail, Osterhaut to Kilgore and back, around 14 miles. He worked his way up from being a non-rider to an avid rider. And that's on his own." 

Other students have gotten jobs to earn money for, or talked their parents into buying, high-end $800-$900 bikes, he says.

Portage West Middle Schools students who have learned enough skills go on field trips out to the wooded trails of the Al Sabo Preserve. They've taken to bugging Dunlop into going on the more-challenging trails of Maple Hill. Thanks to the program's focus on mountain bike riding, some students want to form competitive mountain bike teams, he says.

He has students who get into improving their ride data, their distance, and speed, with Strava on their smartphones. In "a class of 7th graders last year, I had about seven or eight really edgy-type kids, these skateboarder, more of the X-Game type kids. They really like that adrenaline type of stuff." 

Others take a more-relaxed attitude toward riding. Even for the kids who don't go for wicked jumps and gnarly trails, "just being outside, riding a bike with their friends, took the edge off of those kids. Because they are so anxious and stressed-out and over-worked," Dunlop says. 

By the 8th grade, they're already telling themselves, "'Man, I gotta get into college. I gotta get As!' This takes the edge off of those kids, and it's something they need. Biking is the perfect thing for that." 
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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.