To hear 8-year-old Taylor Huddleston explain it, riding a bike is by far the best way to get around.
“It’s fun to ride a bike because you get to feel the wind when you go fast,” he said, straddling his red bicycle. “You get out of the house so you don’t have to stay inside all day.”
On a sunny Saturday morning earlier this month, Huddleston and 30 of his friends from the Foreign Language Academic Immersion Magnet school rode their bikes one mile from the school’s campus to the park to play and eat Popsicles. Some teetered on training wheels. Others raced for the front of the pack.
This inaugural trip of the FLAIM Bike Club was fun, but it carried another purpose: To teach youngsters the rules of the road and guide them to bike safely.
Eventually, the FLAIM Bike Club’s goal is to get students comfortable with riding to school, said Claire Pittman, a spokeswoman for the FLAIM Parent Teacher Organization.
“Riding a bike is now primarily seen as a hobby, not as transit,” said Pittman, 33, who bicycles with her children to school occasionally. “It’s hard to convince the community it’s a viable form of transportation.”
Moving around before school jumpstarts the brain, said Bonnie Richardson, the school’s physical education teacher.
It “gets the wiggles out,” she said.
“They need to get out,” Richardson said. “Physical activity helps with learning.”
Physical activity like bike riding improves blood flow to the brain. A 2013 study found that cycling for 30 minutes helped healthy young men perform better on tests of memory, reasoning and planning.
The number of students ages 5 to 18 who walk or bike to school dropped from 42 percent in 1969 to 13 percent in 2001, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And in the past four decades, the foundation found, the childhood obesity rate has jumped from 4.2 to 17 percent for kids ages 6 to 11.
Growing up in Baton Rouge in the 1960s, Richardson regularly walked and rode her bike to school. Pittman believes it’s possible for children to do it again.
“It’s not like it was so long ago when you could ride in your neighborhood and feel safe,” Pittman said.
The bike club’s meeting started with a mandatory head gear check. Each child’s helmet strap had to fit snugly under the chin.
Mika Torkkola, an instructor from the Bike Baton Rouge advocacy group, taught the basics — how to correctly turn the bike and stop at a yield sign.
He taught the kids the importance of road rules with an exercise called the Chaos Box. All 30 children had to ride around the outdoor basketball court without stopping. Chaos ensued.
Then the kids learned how to ride without bumping into each other, and everyone rode around in a large circle.
“It was really easy because everybody knew what they were doing,” Torkkola said. “Everybody created their own road rules.”
Before leading a train of bicycles to the park, Torkkola reminded them of the most important rule: ride on the right side of the road.
“We’re going the direction of the cars so the cars know where we’re going,” he said.
If more cyclists take to the streets, drivers will become more comfortable with them, said Jeannette Dubinin, who brought her daughters to the club’s meeting. That strategy has worked in other cities in the U.S. and internationally.
“If we’re aware of each other and obey the traffic laws, we’ll be OK,” said Dubinin, 32. “It works everywhere else.”
Dubinin and her 7-year-old and 4-year-old daughters ride regularly for fun. They live in Mid City and must cross the four lanes of Government Street to get to FLAIM’s Beauregard Town campus, making the trip to school a little more dangerous than riding in the neighborhood.
Her daughter Galina, 7, wears a tough-looking helmet decorated with red and black spikes. She loves to pedal, especially on weekends with her family.
“I think it’s a good experience, and it’s good to learn how to ride a bike,” she said. “It can be really fun and you can go on bike rides on the levee.”