Kids on bikes
A boy is sitting astride his motionless bike a little ahead of me as I walk around the lake with my dog on our regular morning jaunt. The boy looks about ten or twelve, give or take a couple of years. He’s wearing a school uniform. There’s something about his demeanour that broadcasts defeat.
‘Are you one of the kids who built the jumps?’ I ask as Maisie and I get close.
He looks up. ‘Yeah.’
‘You all put so much work in,’ I say. He nods, turns his gaze back to the mulched area beside the path.
For the previous few months this little patch of public space had been a hive of activity. It began in the school holidays and then shifted to after school and weekends when term began. A group of local kids – the exact number changed and from day to day and I’m really not sure how many were involved – had built a mountain bike jump off the main walking and cycling path. It was in an area where people (usually kids on bikes) would take a short cut rather than follow the path as it looped down the gentle slope. It was a straggly area under a couple of big old trees, full of fallen leaves and twigs and cut through by an unathorised sandy track made by feet and bike wheels.
The industriousness of the kids was impressive. They shovelled and raked and piled the dirt. They dragged an old carpet down and lay it across the top of the jump. They spent hours, days, weeks building the jump and then riding down it. They would ride flat out down from the top, over the jump and onto the lower part of the path. I frequently walked past as they were hard at it. ‘Wait, there’s a lady coming with a dog!’ the one on watch down the bottom would call as I (and presumably others) walked past. ‘Okay. Clear. Go!’ And the kid at the top would hurtle down.
But then one day the jump was flattened. Tell-tale tyre marks showed that a little digger had undone the kids’ weeks of work in less than a day. Stout posts and red plastic barricaded the track. A stern laminated notice put the council’s position in no uncertain terms: the building of jumps and riding of bikes through this area would not be tolerated; it was dangerous to the bike riders and passing pedestrians; other mountain bike jumps existed elsewhere in other neighbouring suburbs; children wishing to pursue mountain biking were advised to travel to these sites. A small burst of public outrage followed. The spat was reported in the local paper. Another notice from the council appeared where the bike jump used to be: the community’s dismay was noted but such use was incompatible with nature conservation.
Maisie and I stand for a moment with the school boy as he looks sadly at the flattened jump. ‘I feel sorry for you kids,’ I say. ‘You worked so hard and you were always so respectful of people passing by.’
‘Yeah. We even got permission before we started. The council dumped the first load of dirt for us.’
‘Can you rebuild it somewhere else?’
‘Nah, they won’t let us. Everything we suggested just gets knocked back. They really threw us under the bus.’
I’m struck by his turn of phrase. He sounds older than he looks, as if this experience has somehow made him weary of the world. We chat a while longer and I suggest a couple of out of the way places where people rarely walk and wonder if maybe they could try there. ‘Maybe,’ the boy says, but he says it glumly. His heart isn’t in it.
‘Good luck,’ I say. He pedals off towards school. I walk on and wonder. This group of kids had been doing exactly what people of my generation (and those older than me) nostalgically speak of doing as children – disappearing into the outdoors to build stuff and ride bikes and play and take risks. It’s exactly what we say kids need to do today – to get off their screens and get outside. Yet we give them no space to do it. We are scared of danger and litigation. I get that, to some extent at least. Yes, it’s risky, but lots of things are risky. From what I saw, the kids were very respectful, both to the little patch of public space they were enjoying and the people passing by. I get that the jumps were built in a conservation area, but the place is heavily recreated and not exactly pristine. The kids’ activities were confined to a very small area, which was already denuded of vegetation and heavily shaded by introduced tree species. They didn’t clear or damage any vegetation. The location of the bike jump was less than ideal due to its proximity to the walking paths, but surely another little patch could have been found for them.
The spot that was bustling with youthful activity a month ago is now covered in mulch. I guess it will be planted out with native shrubs, which will enhance its conservation value and make it look better. But it had value to those kids as it was.
It’s quiet there now. Not a kid in sight. I guess they’re at home on their screens. And I’m walking past wondering how do kids learn to manage risk and adventure in the real world if we don’t cut them a bit of slack. How we get kids to love being outside if we don’t let them enjoy a place in the way they want to enjoy it? I have questions but not answers.
Thanks for reading,
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This one really struck a chord Jill. We have a wonderful patch of bush in the park near our house. My kids played endlessly in it with the kids from the local neighbourhood. I even remember receiving a letter from my daughter when I was travelling that described the entire imaginary world she had built in there with the girls from next door. It has a fence around it now, which is probably great for the health of the bush, but it's sad for the local kids. They've lost that tiny space for freedom in a busy city.
In another kids related story from this week, I was busy with my morning routine yesterday when I heard very loud music coming from outside. It was sufficiently unusual that I went to my front door to investigate. The 6 year old boy and 3 year old girl from across the road were having a dance party on their front driveway. It was the most beautiful, joyful, delightful start to my day. The kids were having an absolute ball, with the little sister faithfully following her brother's lead. But I noted there was on ongoing tussle going on between parents and children, the former trying to encourage them back inside so that they "didn't disturb the neighbours". Next time I see them, I will let them know that this neighbour at least wasn't disturbed at all. Instead, it cast a happy smile over my entire day :)