The Wyoming City Centering Kids on Bikes
By: Nick Aguilera, PeopleForBikes' youth and community partnerships manager
In Laramie, kids learn to ride bikes in middle school, and a combination of research and advocacy work ensures they remain engaged cyclists into adulthood.
Middle school can be a difficult time. Not only do kids' hormones start kicking in, forcing physical changes, but schoolwork gets harder, bullying, drama and social challenges are heightened and self-confidence can often wane. Since P.E. teacher Jamie Simmons began teaching kids to ride bicycles at Laramie Middle School, she has noticed big improvements in students’ health and wellbeing, their relationships with their peers and their involvement in bicycling both inside and outside of the classroom.
Simmons teaches bicycling through Riding For Focus, a middle school bicycle education program run through the nonprofit Outride. When a school signs on to join Riding For Focus, Outride provides everything needed to get 6th through 8th-grade students riding, including bikes, helmets, curriculum and intensive teacher training. When Laramie Middle School was accepted into the program in 2019, it was transformative for the students.
“When they learn to ride a bike, the whole class gets excited,” said Simmons. ‘I love seeing the kids’ smiles and hearing them say, “I can ride a bike, I can go out and ride with my friends now.’”
Is there a school in your community that would benefit from Riding For Focus? The 2022 Riding For Focus application is now open.
Cynthia Hartung, a professor at the University of Wyoming Department of Psychology, helped Simmons write the initial Riding For Focus grant. Once the program launched at Laramie Middle School, Dr. Hartung began studying the impacts of bicycling for high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on students with ADHD. Dr. Tristan Wallhead, another researcher from the University of Wyoming, has been studying the impact of Riding For Focus on students’ motivation and extracurricular involvement. Participation in all research is completely optional.
Data collected by researchers studying Riding For Focus programs across the country show increased student motivation and improved self-esteem and focus among participating students. Outride also tracks how many kids the program teaches to ride for the first time. To date, at least six students have learned to bike for the first time at Laramie Middle School. Data from Outride’s 2021 annual student survey shows that students who ride bikes more regularly also report better overall wellbeing.
Riding For Focus’ impact on students has not been the only ingredient for building a bicycling ecosystem in Laramie. Students need places to ride their bikes outside of school that they can get to without a car, partner programs where they can continue riding and a supportive community of bicycling advocates. To strengthen the bicycle training, skills development and youth community building that’s developing at Laramie Middle School, Laramie BikeNet is helping construct a mountain bike trail facility adjacent to the school. According to BikeNet Board Member and Youth Cycling Representative Nick Visser, the organization’s mission is to broadly advocate for cycling in the community and, outside of school hours, the new trail will be open to everyone. Still, Visser sees the location of the bike park on school grounds as crucial — he believes it will help students build on what they learn in Riding For Focus, creating lifelong riders in the process.
“This project is so impactful because it is involved with the only middle school in Laramie,” said Visser. “It presents the opportunity for every kid in Laramie, no matter what their background is, to practice.”
Construction of the trail will create a place for students to practice the bicycling skills they learn during P.E. class, as well as a place for students to further develop mountain bike-specific skills. The trail will also serve as a way for the entire community to easily access mountain bike trails in the city. “It's just a great location for getting these kids active and outside,” said Simmons. “They can bring their families on the weekend or come ride on their own once we teach them all the basics.”
Visser is hopeful that the construction of the Laramie Middle School trail and the ongoing popularity of Riding For Focus will continue to increase participation in the local high school mountain bike team. “Last year, when we did our [high school] youth cycling program, we had in the neighborhood of 50 students,” said Visser. “There were maybe 30 students the year before.” In addition to growing participation, Visser hopes to see bicycling continue to benefit youth health and influence the larger culture of Laramie. “This has the opportunity to help students develop cycling as a lifelong sport and, maybe not just sport, but also as a way to ride for recreation and for commuting,” he said.
For Laramie youth and parents alike, bike programming is something to get excited about. Simmons receives countless questions from parents at back-to-school night who want to see their kids involved. “Parent’s ask, ‘How do our kids do the bike unit and how do they join the bike club? We want to get them involved,’” said Simmons. “A lot of communities want what's best for kids — physically active, well-rounded kids are what we all want.”
PeopleForBikes was proud to support Laramie BIkeNet’s grant application in our last round of community grants. Learn more about the seven different bike projects we chose to fund.