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Making school-days an adventure

By Emma Keenan,
Two young boys with their bikes

Brothers Reuben and Rhys look forward to going back to school by bike

Two brothers messing around with their bikes

For brothers Reuben and Rhys, cycling to school themselves is an adventure

Recently I stopped by for a catch up with a couple of friends – Rhys and Reuben. Rhys is 9, and has a wise head on his shoulders. He’s a kid who is naturally curious about the world around him. Since he’s been old enough to say the word, he’s been unwavering in his ambition to become a palaeontologist.

Reuben is his younger brother, a proper live-wire full of energy and giggles, and willing to launch himself full-tilt into anything if it looks fun or adventurous. They’re coming to the end of two months of summer holidays, and starting to think about going back to school.

I asked the boys if they had learned anything over the summer. This was initially met with a flat ‘no’ from both. Learning is for school, and summer is for holiday, and switching your brain off. But then Rhys remembered that he’d learned how to swim the butterfly stroke over the summer. In fact, he’d taught himself at the pool on their family holiday.

This prompted a stream of recollections from both on the various skills they had acquired in the pool. Reuben had learned how to dive to the bottom of the pool and collect diving rings. Both boys learned to swim lengths, to pull off spectacular dives, and to swim underwater. And as well as learning new skills, they got to pass some on. Rhys and his older brother, Isaac, taught their mum to swim. Reuben, not to be outdone, taught her to blow bubbles and sing underwater. Key life skills to benefit the whole family.

Back to school doesn't have to be a bore

I asked the boys how they were feeling about going back to school, after a summer with so much fun and adventure. At first, they didn’t seem keen on the idea. Rhys said that with school, you always have to be on time, be ready for your lessons, that you can’t just do what you want. The boys seem quite taken with the freedom that summer brings, and the ownership of their time. Something that definitely rings true for me as an adult.

But then they started talking about the good things about school – that you get to hang out with your friends all day, and you can learn all kinds of new and interesting things. They had some great ideas for making school more exciting, and a bit more like summer. Both boys loved the idea of doing more of their lessons outside. Why measure the circumference of a circle on a piece of paper, when you can measure the circumference of an actual tree? Rhys thought that more activity trips would be great fun, because they are such a good experience. Reuben thought that school would be greatly enhanced with built-in nap-time. Smart kid!

Rhys and Reuben both go to a local primary school in Belfast which is part of the Sustrans Active School Travel programme. They’ve been throwing themselves into the various active school travel challenges and activities throughout the year with bags of enthusiasm, and the journey to school has become something that they both really enjoy. Interestingly, when I asked them what they thought would motivate more people to walk, scoot or cycle to school, they put a big emphasis on whole class rewards. Rhys would rather win some extra play time for his whole class than an individual prize that only he can enjoy. That kind of attitude creates a wonderful opportunity for encouraging more children and families to be active on the school run.

Cycling to school

Active school travel is a great way for kids to keep learning and reinforcing some of the great life lessons they’ve been picking up through the summer. The boys’ mum, Kelly, feels that the opportunity to cycle to school through the park on their own has been so important in helping her two older boys become more independent – especially oldest brother Isaac, who is off to secondary school this year.

It is teaching the boys to take responsibility for themselves and each other. She also feels that it gives the boys a chance to bond and develop their social relationships without their mum always being around. It’s just a short trip through the park to school, but it is building on all that fun and adventure that the boys have experienced throughout the summer holidays.

Rhys and Reuben have had a brilliant summer, but it’s great to see them greet the new school year with enthusiasm. What I picked up from them in our conversation is that they understand that learning is not restricted to the classroom, but there are learning opportunities all around them.

The fresh confidence they have built over the summer as they learned to swim underwater and dive is something they will keep developing through something as simple as a cycle to school. Confident, independent, equipped and responsible young people with a taste for adventure – whether it’s a day in the pool, or the journey to school, kids are keen for the opportunity to learn new life skills, if we give them the freedom and opportunity to try things out. And in return, they might even teach you to blow bubbles underwater.

Read more about the Active School Travel Programme in Northern Ireland

Sustrans' work in schools across the UK