Pedal Power Drives Health and Wellness Education in the Arkansas Delta
Do you remember your first bicycle? Do you remember when your mom or dad removed the training wheels, gave you a gentle push and sent you off down the street, pedaling, balancing and concentrating until, finally, the wobbling stopped and you were riding on your own?
That first ride is often the fondest of childhood memories. In that moment, there is a sense of freedom and accomplishment. A challenge has been overcome. The world is suddenly a lot bigger and adventure awaits.
That’s why kids love bikes and it’s why, on a recent spring morning at the KIPP Delta Elementary Literacy Academy in Helena, Arkansas, about 100 students were abuzz with excitement.
The group of third and fourth graders gathered with their teachers in the school’s gymnasium around boxes of unassembled bicycles. Decked out in orange t-shirts and armed with wrenches and enthusiasm, the kids got to work and within two hours had turned out 20 shiny, red two wheelers.
The "bike build” marked the official launch of CYCLE Kids, an educational program designed to promote active lifestyles among kids by introducing them to the joys and health benefits of bicycling. CYCLE Kids programs serve 3,600 kids annually in schools across the country – including California, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, New York and Massachusetts.
For eight weeks during their regular physical education class, students learn the fundamentals of biking – everything from the proper sizing for helmets to gear shifting and braking and how to ride safely in traffic.
Just as importantly, the kids get an education about how cycling and regular exercise can help reduce obesity and Type 2 diabetes, about healthy portion sizes and how nutritious foods are the most efficient fuel to generate pedal power. In other words, chips and soda won’t take you as far as fruits and vegetables.
“We see this as an opportunity to build some lifelong healthy living habits with kids,” says Todd Dixon, school director at KIPP Delta ELA. “Elementary school is a pretty pivotal time and opportunity to make kids aware of and build some healthy habits. The program was attractive to us because it is a really nice combination of teaching kids some skills around riding a bicycle with the nutrition components in the curriculum.”
The core CYCLE Kids messages are important for children anywhere to learn, but they are especially valuable in Helena, an economically distressed region in the Delta region of Arkansas. More than 25% of all youth in Phillips County – which includes Helena-West Helena – are obese, far higher than the state average.
Beyond the formal classroom studies, KIPP Delta ELA has formed an after-school bike club for the most avid students.
“In a community where there are not a ton of after-school activities for kids or parks that are in great shape, there is a really neat opportunity here for kids to be able to get more into cycling,” says Todd, a cyclist who bikes to work on most school days.
The enthusiasm with which CYCLE Kids has been received at KIPP Delta is music to the ears of Julianne Idlet, the program’s executive director. Idlet, a lifelong cyclist, founded CYCLE Kids in 2004 after reading and becoming alarmed about the skyrocketing rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes among American children, particularly those raised in poverty. She developed the program’s curriculum with faculty members at Boston University, where she is a visiting scholar. The poverty rate in Phillips County is 37%.
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