Published: 3rd JUNE 2024

Encouraging active travel at my school: Emma's story

In this blog, Emma, a teacher at Bocombra Primary School in Portadown, Northern Ireland, talks about the positive impact she sees in her pupils when they travel actively to school, the joys she experiences as an Active Travel Champion and what more can be done when it comes to cycle access for families in her area.

A woman and three school pupils stand at a road crossing, two of the children have bikes and are wearing helmets.

'Pupils who regularly take part in our active travel competitions are easy to spot as they arrive at school with rosy cheeks and full of energy'. Emma pictured with pupils from her school. Credit: Brian Morrison / Sustrans

The importance of teaching children about the benefits of being active

In an age of declining physical activity levels in children (and adults) it’s vitally important that we teach children how regular physical activity develops their fundamental movement skills that’ll not only help them to be strong and fit but will establish the habit of being active, which will be easy to continue as they get older.

As adults, we understand the benefits of physical activity to our mental health, but we need to teach this to children as they don’t fully understand how much of a positive effect getting outside and being active can have on how we feel about our world.

Active travel provides the perfect opportunity for pupils to include physical activity in their day without having to take part in sporting activities, which they may not enjoy or be able to take part in.

Children are not reaching the Chief Medical Officers’ recommended 60 minutes of physical activity every day. More than a quarter of children in Northern Ireland are overweight or living with obesity - active travel to and from school can be utilised to meet this basic requirement without adding more activities to our already busy lives.

The power of an active commute

Our school takes part in the Active School Travel programme and we are a Gold Ambassador school.

Pupils who regularly take part in our active travel competitions are easy to spot as they arrive at school with rosy cheeks and full of energy to get started.

I also notice these pupils love to tell others about how they have travelled to school – I love hearing their conversations about how they scooted the whole way or how they walked with their friends or family.

Compared to those arriving by car who often look sleepy or tired and sometimes reluctant to come into school.

Two children on bikes wearing helmets stand beside a bike shelter in a school playground.

Bocombra Primary School participates in the Active School Travel programme and is a Gold Ambassador school. Credit: Brian Morrison / Sustrans

The need for better cycle access 

There’s a massive need for a robust and well organised second-hand bicycle facility in our area – especially as we live so close to the cycle paths (Route 9 runs alongside the school) which provides children with a safe way of cycling, which many other areas don’t have such close access to.

Craigavon Lakes and South Lakes Leisure Centre would provide the ideal space for the Council to have a space for people to donate and buy bicycles from.

We did try this last year during a school fundraising drive – we asked for donations of bicycles and then took photos and sold them on, with all profits going to school funds.

It wasn’t as big as a success as we had hoped with only a couple of bikes donated but there were multiple events happening throughout the month and I think it got lost in the noise.

This is something we want to revisit in the near future.

The positive impact of Big Walk and Wheel 

We’ve been taking part in Big Walk and Wheel for 9 years which feels like a lifetime.

It has been part of our school calendar since it was called The Big Pedal.

I love the inclusivity of how it now includes walking as well as wheeling - I feel it allows so many more pupils to feel that they have a part to play, even if they don’t have a bike or scooter.

This year, we finished with a fantastic average daily score of 60.72% which is one of our highest scores to date.

We also love to see how we fare against other schools in Northern Ireland and we were delighted to come 11th out of 78 schools, again one of our best results so far.

A man kneels beside two children on bikes to check their tyres in a school playground.

Dave Wiggins is the school's Active Travel Officer. Credit: Brian Morrison/Sustrans

Spreading joy as an Active Travel Champion

Our pupils also loved the bike tag competition – if they found a tag on their bike on a random day, they brought the tag to me and they could choose a prize from my prize box.

My favourite story from this year was how a P1 (Year 1) parent expressed a desire for her child to be able to scoot to school but she couldn’t manage to carry his scooter down to the bike shed near the playground - which is quite a distance for a P1 pupil never mind someone with mobility issues.

So, after speaking to the child’s teacher, a P1 parent offered to bring the scooter down in the morning and back up again at home time so that pupil could be in with a chance of getting a prize tag.

When that pupil got a prize tag and brought it to me, his smile was one of the absolute highlights of my time as an Active Travel Champion – it made all the effort and time that it takes to run active travel competitions so worthwhile.

Seeing the youngest pupils in school so eager to take part is always such a treat as you know they are just beginning their active travel journey.

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When that pupil got a prize tag and brought it to me, his smile was one of the absolute highlights of my time as an Active Travel Champion – it made all the effort and time that it takes to run active travel competitions so worthwhile. Blockquote quotation marks

Scooting as an alternative to cycling to cut costs

One of our biggest successes of this year’s Big Walk and Wheel were the scooter skills sessions organised by our Active Travel Officer, Dave.

Traditionally we focus on cycle skills, but scooters have become a much more popular way of travelling and we would love more of these types of sessions for more pupils.

We also find that with cost of living pressures, fewer children have access to bicycles and it is something we could love to encourage more use of in our pupils.

Sustrans' latest Walking and Cycling Index (2023), reveals that in Belfast there has been an increase in commuter trips made by cycle since 2021.

School children made a total of 260,000 cycle trips to school in 2023. This is the lowest number of trips compared to cycle trips to work (3,300,000) and leisure trips (2,200,000) made in that year. 

Among Belfast residents 46% agree that closing streets outside local schools to cards during drop-off and pick-up times would improve their local area.

The Walking and Cycling Index (formerly named Bike Life) is the biggest assessment of walking, wheeling and cycling in urban areas in the UK and Ireland.

It is the clearest picture of walking, wheeling and cycling across the country.

Note to reader

Sustrans recognises that some people who use wheeled mobility aids, for example a wheelchair or a mobility scooter, may not identify with the term walking and may prefer to use the term wheeling. We use the terms walking and wheeling together to ensure we are as inclusive as possible.


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