It's a cold morning as Makaraka School students quickly grab helmets, check the brakes, tyres and handlebars on school bikes and take off around a track that skirts the field and playground. They watch out for each other in more ways than one, some days playing at being police officers, handing out tickets to reward peers they see cycling considerately.
"That shows me that after a year, they're making new experiences for themselves and that's pretty exciting," says Year 4-5 teacher Mihi Hannah.
Makaraka gained its bike track and bike fleet in 2017 thanks to Bikes in Schools, an established project which is supported through BikeReady. The 130-odd students now ride bikes every week as part of PE and at other times. The bike track has also provided context for science fair projects.
Principal Hayden Swann describes Bikes in Schools as a "no-brainer" for the Board of Trustees. The project provides a long-lasting resource for the school's curriculum, which emphasises learning through adventure and risk analysis.
"For our rural kids, there's nowhere for them to bike apart from their driveways. With access to the town bike paths and bike tracks, distance is a factor. So as community hubs, schools are the best place to house these facilities," he says.
Finding room for a bike track
"For us, the first question was do we have the space?" says Hayden. "Our footprint is quite small, but we did a walk around and discovered we could do it by utilising all the far corners, literally going down along the edge of the playground and winding through a couple of trees."
This way, the school turned space constraints into an advantage for children's learning.
"We want bike riding to create spatial awareness. They have areas where there's a challenge, areas they have to negotiate. They're really aware of their surroundings," says Hayden.
He believes this awareness and analytical thinking can transfer to bike riding on streets and, eventually, to their skill as drivers.
Extending the learning into the classroom
The Year 4-5 class led by teacher Mihi Hannah used bike track experiences as the basis for science investigations. Group projects covered safety aspects of the track, from comparing braking distances to testing mirrors for a better view at a track junction.
The class picked up 2 silver awards and one bronze at the regional science fair, says Mihi.
"The most important thing for students is to learn through their experiences, through a context and bike riding was right in front of our eyes. Bikes feature all these accessible elements of science like forces and motion in a way that kids can relate to in their investigations."
She says students had enough personal experiences to develop topics for their inquiries.
"Inquiry based learning is so powerful and creates so much student agency. They were able to really take the time and analyse what they had — and that's part of being a scientist. I know through teaching science that one of the real problems is getting to the point of critiquing evidence. This is an example that allows for that right at our back door."
She says the trickiest part for many students was working out how to collect measurable data. Even if it was subjective, they needed to discern one observation from another.
"So, it involved asking those tricky questions to get them coming up with a method to use. There wasn't one answer for how to do this. One of the best projects didn't get to the last stage of presentation, but they had done so much learning. If they did a science inquiry again, they're in a better position to get to that end point."
Here are some details of what's in place at Makaraka, via Bikes in Schools. Local support came from the Connext Charitable Trust, which leads regional projects with a focus on education and wellbeing of young people.
- Fleet of 50 bikes, in various sizes for younger and older student (the largest suit teachers too)
- A converted container provides storage
- Main track round the school, pump track and obstacle course, all built during a summer break
- Cycle skills training by professional instructors
- The school's caretaker maintains the track and minor bike repairs (a bike mechanic visits for additional repairs)
- Families use the tracks on weekends - preschool children are learning to ride in preparation for school