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On Parenting
Posted at 02:17 PM ET, 05/15/2012

Lose the Training Wheels bike camps help kids with special needs

Many activities that typically developing children enjoy can seem too physically or mentally demanding for kids with special needs. Riding a two-wheeled bicycle, however, does not have to be one of those unattainable skills.

In fact, learning to ride a two-wheeler can be a great equalizer for children who struggle to keep up with their peers in so many other endeavors.
Christopher Kleiber, 9, practices on a training bike during a Lose the Training Wheels session. (Jahi Chikwendiu - WASHINGTON POST)

During spring break, our 8-year-old son attended a Lose the Training Wheels camp at Lee District RECenter in Fairfax and, with continued practice, is growing adept at riding independently, an accomplishment that many parents might wrongly think is too challenging for their child. (Read about more Lose the Training Wheels success stories in KidsPost.)

The camp, which took place on an indoor track, uses adapted bike equipment to help people (not just children) ages 8 and older who have disabilities learn to ride a bike on their own.

The riders, ushered and encouraged around the track by volunteers, initially learn on bikes that have a roller in place of a back wheel (my son likened it to a small steamroller when he saw it). As a rider grows more comfortable, the camp organizers replace that roller with another one with more tapered ends so that the rider takes on even more responsibility for balancing on the bike.

Riding a bike is the ultimate in multitasking, forcing you to juggle steering, balance, braking and navigating obstacles. But it also can give the budding rider an incredible sense of accomplishment and a boost of self-confidence and independence.

“It makes a big difference to go from a roller bike that is slightly wobbly and acts like a real bike to two wheels,” said Michael Swisher, director of therapeutic recreation for Arlington County, which will host a camp this summer. “It’s a much smoother transition than going from the absolute stability of training wheels to the complete instability of two wheels. It also gives them time to practice. For someone who has processing issues or delays, it gives them that time.”

Later in the week the riders circled the loop on two-wheeled bikes with bars on the back for the camp volunteers to help guide and stabilize them if the rider got too wobbly or weaved toward a collision, with a wall or another rider.

The sessions were 80 minutes long for five consecutive days and the participants ranged in age from 8 to the late teens if not older. Kevin Crenshaw, the floor supervisor at my son’s camp, estimated that about 80 percent of participants in the camps are independent riders by the end of the week.

We liked those odds. The camp was relatively expensive at $265 for the five 80-minute sessions, but in our opinion worth every penny because it got our son much closer to riding independently than we could have managed at home.

At the recommendation of camp staff, we got a handle put on the back of his bike at the end of the camp so we could help stabilize him while he continued to practice at home. Although not yet ready for a bike trail, he’s well on his way to complete independent riding. Just this week he made it all the way around a track near our home independently, turns and all. We cheered loud and long for his big accomplishment.

“A lot of these kids won’t play sports with their peers or do other things, but if we can get you riding a bike, you can do that with anybody,” Swisher said. “We’ve leveled the playing field. Many of these kids will not grow up to drive a car, and now they will have independent transportation because of this. It’s the best camp in the world.”

Arlington’s camp is from July 30-Aug. 3 at Kenmore Middle School. Cost is $265 for county residents; $285 for non-county residents. Contact the therapeutic recreation office at 703-228-4740 for information. Visit the Lose the Training Wheels Web site for a schedule of other upcoming camps.

Mari-Jane Williams is a news design editor at The Washington Post and a regular guest contributor to On Parenting. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two children, one of whom has special needs.

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