Benefits of bike touring for small children

A few weeks ago someone posted a comment on one of my blog posts about how much our kids were learning from our journeys, but she was concerned about families touring with small kids. “What learning experiences are these children missing out on by being stuck in their little carriages all day,” she asked. “They could use that time to interact with other children and learn what all the other three year olds are learning.”

I responded with my thoughts but I, admittedly, never gone traveling with a toddler on bikes. My sons were seven before we took them touring for the first time. Here’s my response:

When we learn, our brains grow dendrites (physical connections between brain cells) in response to being in stimulating, challenging environments. All dendrites are good – the more connections between cells we have, the easier it is to find a “hook” to hang new information on.

One of my pet peeves is when somebody says, “Don’t bother with travel until the kids can remember it” – that makes no sense to me! When kids are young is when they are laying the foundation for their older years. Having them in challenging, stimulating environments where they have new exciting things to explore every day is so beneficial to them.

When we’re out bike touring, children are constantly in new and stimulating environments. They have a new playground each and every time they stop. And they have Mom and Dad right there with them all the time – probably moreso than at home.

Are biking kids learning the same things as kids that aren’t biking? No. But do kids raised on a farm learn the same things as kids in the projects? An Ethiopian kid versus a Taiwanese kid? Is one better than the other or are they simply different?

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But really – what do I know? I’ve never toured with small children, so I turned to the experts – those who are. Matt and Becki of Toddler on Tour have been on the road with two-year-old Theo for a little over a month now. I asked them what they see as the major benefits for Theo. Here’s their response:

The first and key aspect for both Theo and ourselves is that quite simply, we get to spend time together as a family. Theo builds a better relationship with us and is parented by his parents – not by daycare staff, not by friends or relatives – but us. A consistency in parenting methods and techniques, boring as it may sound, is less confusing for him and we feel that the simple fact that he knows we are the key figures in his life is absolutely vital. These days, too many children are brought up by someone other than their actual parents – and the long-term implications of this can create difficulties later on.

Theo
Theo

Toddlers are the proverbial sponge of learning at this particular age and when on a cycling tour, they have the advantage of learning from firsthand experience and direct interaction with their surroundings. From his little cocoon on the back of the bike, Theo is continuously exposed to all and everything that nature has to offer and the many sights passing by him. We are entertained throughout our ride by a continuous stream of questions and declarations as Theo absorbs everything he sees in an excited and enthusiastic manner. We’re exposing him to different scenery and cultures, aspects and areas of the world we simply couldn’t expose him to from the safety of a car back in the UK – from the trailer, he can really see the world. When we make our many stops and take him to places, this is just extended still further.

By breaking Theo out of the ‘comfort zone’ of the familiar and routine into which he was settled at home, we are encouraging him to become more resilient and adaptable to different surroundings and situations. At present, he is sleeping somewhere different every night, meeting new people, and experiencing different situations – and loving every moment of it. He is adjusting brilliantly and learning a rare form of independence and adaptability which we feel will be invaluable in later life.

These continuous changes, many feared, would unsettle him and cause him to become overly dependant or nervous and cling towards us – far, far from it. The opposite in fact! Theo is becoming increasingly confidant and outgoing, is completely at ease with talking to new people and absolutely untroubled by the ever-changing scenes around him- in fact, he is enriched by the new sights, sounds and smells that greet him on a daily basis.

Matt with Theo in the trailer
Matt with Theo in the trailer

Although some people feel that leaving Theo in the trailer for periods of time does little for him, we’ve found the opposite to be true and are fascinated to see how he is thriving as a result. He needs to entertain himself for those periods and with no modern gadgets and gizmos – no television, no computer or fancy electrical toys – he is stimulated to use his imagination and the results are incredible.

We hear him creating elaborate fantasy worlds and stories for himself, using the new knowledge he has acquired and placing it into different contexts in order to make sense of it. After our visit to the wildlife park and introducing him to a variety of new animals, we heard him recounting all the sights and new species into a series of different scenarios and situations – it was incredible to witness the knowledge taking root in his developing mind.

Even in only a month, we’ve noticed a significant development in Theo’s speech. It’s taken us a while to figure out the cause for this, but we’ve concluded that the combination of being stimulated to try and verbalize just what he is seeing and experiencing around him, the questions both he and we are asking as we go and the many new people he is meeting who are engaging him in conversation must all be playing a factor. Different accents and nationalities further challenge his developing speech – for the better.

Theo may be too young to explicitly remember specific details of the trip we are undertaking, but he is learning many, many skills and virtues that will stay with him for the rest of his life and are shaping the child he will become. He is learning patience and understanding when we can’t respond immediately; he learns by example the importance and rewards of a healthy, active lifestyle.

Becky

Becki

We are opening up his world to a variety of cultures and experiences and, we hope, embedding in him the richness of experiencing travel and a sense of adventure and a desire to discover and experience life. He is learning to appreciate nature and the great outdoors and gets plenty of fresh air!!

In a world of abundance and excess, during our cycle tour Theo will be experiencing a minimalist lifestyle that we hope will teach him appreciation of what little he has and will ensure he makes the most of it. The limited number of toys we brought with us are being played with and adapted to all number of situations and scenarios – again, furthering the use of his imagination – and certainly he won’t be in any danger of being spoilt or over-indulged which, we have been warned, can lead to further problems later on in childhood!

Theo is also being exposed to different foods on a daily basis which we hope will prevent him from becoming fussy. And despite the lack of consistent routine, upon which we so heavily depended back home, he goes to bed each and every night without fuss and quite happily. We have no need to worry about him – he adapts fantastically, perhaps better than we do!

We’ve had many people that we’ve chanced to meet and stayed with comment upon Theo and the fact that when they originally heard what we were doing, they wondered just how we could undertake such a task with a toddler in tow. He continues to surprise everyone he meets – compliments we’ve received have included how “well adjusted” he is, how “happy,” “content” and “outgoing” he is and how much he appears to enjoy himself as we go. He is a shining example to us and, we hope, others who are considering anything similar. Don’t let fear of the unknown hold you back when it comes to exposing your toddler to the joys of cycle touring. They adapt better than we do!

Follow along with Matt, Becki, and Theo at Toddler on Tour

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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5 Responses to Benefits of bike touring for small children

  1. Bluegreen Kirk May 27, 2011 at 7:39 am #

    Kids simply love doing things, period especially with their parents. Everything my son does he wants me to do. From biking to rip sticks! Love this post.

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  2. marston mitchell May 27, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    I have introduced your tour to friends and they have many doubts about taking a child on such a journey. Very well written , I will encourage folks to read thin blog,lots of good points. cheers

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  3. Amy @LivinOnTheRoad May 27, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

    I’ll be honest that I prefer the idea of a caravan (RV) to bike touring. I think most of what you’ve said could apply to travel in general, though with bike touring I’d imagine you’d have the added bonus of reinforcing the importance of exercise and physical well-being (not to mention saving on the cost of fossil fuel – but do you increase the cost of food fuel to match?)

    That said, we had a period when we didn’t have a car, and we’d ride everywhere. Peter was 5 so he and I would ride. Susan was 3, and Lucy was 1, so they would sit in the tandem trailer and I would tow them.

    They were always so comfortable in there, and they loved them. They’d look at where we were, and look at books.

    Better than a car was that I could just unhitch and change it to a pram when we got somewhere and they could stay asleep if they’d nodded off while we were riding.

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  4. Heather Q May 30, 2011 at 5:51 am #

    Just wondering, how do you deal with the seeming lack of physical exercise that a little child would get riding in the trailer? I would be concerned that they wouldn’t get enough exercise or at least not as much exercise as a kid living in a traditional home.

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  5. Nancy May 30, 2011 at 9:19 am #

    Heather – I think you are giving us biking parents more credit than we are due! Trust me, we aren’t superhuman machines who can crank out 10 hours per day of actual cycling.

    Although I did not keep track of our actual hours cycled on our journey, my little calculator on my handlebars did tell me each day exactly how many hours my wheels had been turning. Off hand, I would guess around 4 would be average. I do know that when we got up to 6 hours in any given day, that was a LONG day in the saddle. To the best of my knowledge, we never, ever reached 8 hours of pedaling – although it’s possible but I was too exhausted those days to even look at the computer.

    So – about four hours per day in the saddle/trailer, and that’s spread out throughout the day. How many hours do other kids spend strapped into their car seats? 45 minutes to day care? 45 back from daycare? 30 minutes to run to the grocery store and 30 minutes back home… The kid fall asleep on the way to the movie so we take the car seat out of the car and take it in with us rather than wake him up… I think you can see that most American kids can easily spend four hours/day in their car seat.

    While we’re biking, there is the advantage of the children being able to look out at the surrounding countryside – it’s all new and fresh rather than the traffic they would be seeing from the car.

    Trust me – we take a lot of breaks. A lot. We may “be on the road” for 8 or 10 hours per day, but most of that will be spent playing in the forest on the side of the road rather than actual pedaling.

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