Strategies For Educating Children

The preceding section describes the topics that may be included in Safe Routes to School (SRTS) education for children. This section includes ideas for:

  • ways to deliver the education message
  • how to support classroom-based teaching
  • sources of instructors

Tam Valley School students test their bicycle and pedestrian safety knowledge by playing Jeopardy in Mill Valley, CA.

Ways to deliver education

A variety of methods are available for teaching children about safety and health. Deciding on a method (or more than one) may be influenced by:

  • how much content is to be covered
  • the amount of time available
  • the desired outcome

For example, one-time instruction, such as an assembly, generally offers the least information and requires the least time. Skills practice, which requires more time and extensive preparation, shows the greatest promise for children to adopt safety skills (Tolmie, Foot, & McLaren, 1996).

This section will describe the following educational methods:

  • One-time instruction
  • Classroom or physical education lessons
  • Parent involvement
  • Structured skills practice

While each method is described separately, SRTS programs usually use a combination of methods. In fact a multi-pronged approach will most likely reach more children.

School assembly in Santa Ana, CA.

One-time instruction

One-time instruction, such as an assembly, offers an opportunity to reach many children quickly. The event builds school-wide excitement about bicycling and walking while offering a way to introduce safety education in schools where competing demands for class time do not allow for more extensive instruction.

Assemblies work best when they are short, visual, focused on a single topic, age-appropriate and engage children. Educational messages may be taught through skits, songs, chants, photographic or artistic presentations, videos, guest speakers or other ways of engaging a large audience. Classes working on related topics, such as health or air quality, can share what they have learned with other children in the audience.

Children may have a hard time remembering or applying what they learn in these brief sessions. One-time methods can be made more effective by reinforcing them throughout the year by inserting messages in school-wide announcements, signs and newsletter articles.

Classroom or physical education lessons

In a classroom or physical education class, education can be provided in the following ways:

  • stand-alone lessons
  • lessons integrated into subjects such as language arts and math
  • comprehensive curriculum delivered in every grade

Ideally, children will receive a comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian safety curriculum which includes hands-on skills practice. Many schools see bicycle and pedestrian safety, whether as part of a comprehensive curriculum or not, fitting nicely into physical education.

A student's map of barriers to walking to school from Annapolis Elementary School, Annapolis, MD.

Students at Coldfall Primary in London, UK calculated their collective miles walked and bicycled and "climbed" to the top of Mount Everest.

Lessons integrated into classroom subjects

Safety education can be integrated into traditional classroom subjects to meet education standards in many ways. Examples include:

Calculating average walking speeds or distances.
Walking outdoors to collect samples and observe nature.
Learning about climate change, pollution and how walking and bicycling can play a protective role.
Reading about nature or walking.
Language arts
Writing about walking or what is seen on the route to school.
Designing posters to encourage walking.
Tracking students' walking and bicycling mileage and plotting it on a map.
Learning about places that the school or class "visits" as they gather miles. (See more details in Encouragement).
Drawing a map of the route to school.
Learning about the cardiovascular system.
Calculating heart rate.
Using pedometers to count steps.

Walking to Rushton Elementary School in Mission, KS.

Parent involvement

Parents can be the best instructors for their children because:

  1. They can serve as role models for safe walking and bicycling behavior.
  2. They can observe their child's behavior and provide guidance in real-life situations.

Information about what's being taught in school can be sent home and parents can be asked to reinforce the skills with their children. Encouraging parents to take a walk with their child provides time for them to assess the child's skills, such as whether the child pays attention to traffic, chooses appropriate places to walk and has the ability to gauge gaps in traffic that allow for safe street crossing. Parents can also play a role in the school by volunteering to help with classroom and skills practice.

Structured skills practice

Skills practice gives children a safe, supervised environment in which to learn safety behaviors. Pedestrian skills practice includes where and when to cross a street and proper crossing procedure. Bicycle skills training includes bicycle handling drills and may also include a supervised group ride in a neighborhood. Simulated situations, whether on foot or bicycle, require space such as a playground or closed parking lot and more than one adult. Bicycle skills practice also usually requires cones, stop signs and other props.

Skills practice may be included in the following ways:

  • Part of classroom or physical education class-based lessons
  • Part of an after-school program
  • A one-time event such as a bicycle rodeo

Bicycle skills practice or any on-bicycle activity is more logistically complex than pedestrian safety training and a knowledgeable instructor such as a police officer, bicycle club member or experienced physical education teacher is needed. Bicycle skills practice is generally conducted with older elementary children and may occur one-time as a bicycle rodeo, or over several sessions as a more complete bicycle safety training.

Lagunitas School students practice their bicycling skills in Marin County, CA.

A bicycle rodeo course.

Bicycle rodeo

Bicycle rodeos are one-time events for children to practice basic bicycling techniques and can serve as an opportunity to check children's bicycles for fit and functioning and to provide instruction on proper helmet use. Rodeos require a knowledgeable instructor and use a simulated setting for practice. Simulated settings may be playgrounds or parking lots set up with stop signs, traffic cones, and other props. Often a stop sign course is set up to teach children how to stop and look for oncoming traffic. Other activities teach balance, stopping, turning and control. Rodeos are often community-sponsored instead of solely conducted by a school.

Bicycle safety training

Bicycle safety training generally lasts five to ten hours over several sessions and includes both information and on-bicycle practice of safe ways to operate a bicycle. At the end of the course participants apply their knowledge and skills in simulated or actual on-road settings. Simulated activities are as described for a bicycle rodeo, but allow more time for practice and mastery. Knowledgeable instructors may be available from the local law enforcement agency or bicycle club. For example, the League of American Bicyclists offers trained instructors to teach their Bicycle Education program.

See Resources section for activities, lesson plans, comprehensive curricula and pedestrian and bicycle skills training programs.

The following table provides a summary of some of the key advantages and considerations of each method that has been described here.

Advantages Considerations
One-time instruction Requires little time.
Reaches many children at once.
Children may not retain information.
Requires activities that will engage a large audience with a range of ages and attention spans.
Classroom or physical education lessons Reaches all children regardless of whether they currently walk or bicycle to school or have parent instruction.
Can be part of progressive instruction year to year.
Requires class time.
Requires instructor preparation time.
Parent involvement Uses opportunities to assess and teach pedestrian skills in real-life situations.
Each child receives guidance based on their individual developmental readiness.
Children may not all equally benefit as some parents may not choose to be involved.
Parents may need guidance as to what are appropriate safety messages.
Structured skills practice More likely that children will retain and apply skills than education without hands-on practice (Tolmie et al., 1996). Requires space, equipment (including helmets), and several adults.

A police officer reviews correct street crossing procedure with children.

Sources of instructors

All of these educational strategies require at least one individual who is knowledgeable and willing to teach. A variety of people may take on this role. If instruction is to be provided at the school, teachers may cover the material themselves or they may appreciate guest instructors such as a local bicycle club member or law enforcement officer. Parents can play a central role as instructors for their own children but they may need guidance on what to teach. After-school activities are another opportunity to provide safety training and can tap into other community resources.

The following individuals can play a role in educating children:

  • Physical education or classroom teacher
  • Law enforcement, fire department or safety personnel
  • Local bicycle club member including a League of American Bicyclists (LAB) Instructor
  • Parent
  • Volunteer
  • School nurse
  • Public health professional
  • Community group such as a local Safe Kids coalition

Putting It Into Practice: Bicycle Safety Training

B.B. Harris Elementary, Duluth, GA

At B.B. Harris Elementary in Duluth, Georgia, Safe Routes to School Project staff collaborated with the school's physical education teachers to train 450 children in grades three through five in bicycle safety over one month. Using the League of American Bicyclists Kids Bicycle Education and the Basics of Bicycling curricula, the school developed a 5-session bicycle safety program to fit the physical education schedule. The course was entitled, "Safe Bicycle Driving," and the instructor (certified by the League of American Bicyclists), began each class by telling the students that this was effectively their very first driver's education class; whatever they grow up to drive — cars, trucks, motorcycles, or bicycles, the same rules of the road apply.

Through the training, the children had opportunities to fit helmets and bicycles, practice bicycle-handling skills, and learn four basic rules of the road. On the final day, the students were introduced to "Harristown, A Bicycle-Friendly City," in the gym, with simulated streets and destinations such as a store, a park, and a library. The students rode around the "city" to the Harristown destinations, some as bicycle-drivers and some as car-drivers. A few served as police officers, giving out tickets to those who violated a rule of the road. The students then received a "Safe Bicycle Drivers License" and an activity booklet by the same name.

Putting It Into Practice: Institutionalizing Safety Education

Rockville, MD

In Rockville, MD all 7000 elementary students receive bicycle and pedestrian education. Since 2004, bicycle and pedestrian safety has been a standard part of the school system's teaching curriculum. The program was initiated by City of Rockville staff and is now coordinated by physical education teachers.

Practicing bicycle skills in a simulated environment at Farmland Elementary School, Rockville, MD.

The curriculum includes a series of interactive lesson plans designed for each grade. Students in kindergarten through second grade learn basic pedestrian concepts. Older elementary school students (grades three through five) focus on bicycle safety fundamentals such as proper use of a bicycle helmet, rules of the road, laws pertaining to bicyclists and bicycle handling techniques. Students practice pedestrian and bicyclist skills through simulated scenarios using bicycles, helmets and pedestrian safety props supplied by the City. In addition, the school's safety patrol practices bicycle and pedestrian safety skills and then reinforces safety messages to students.

At Farmland Elementary school in Rockville, few students bicycled to school before the program began. Afterwards, the bicycle rack was full every day. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association has begun to extend the reach of the program into other schools in Montgomery County and Prince George's County. The Maryland Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Education Program has been made available to public and private schools, law enforcement agencies and community organizations throughout Maryland as well as being available on-line for any community to use.