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Bike camp moves challenged kids toward independence

Learn more about the U-M bike camp >

In just five days, U-M researchers taught 10-year-old Noah Harrington a skill his parents have been trying to teach him for years: how to ride a bike.

Initial findings from the bike camp, which studies the impact of bike riding on children with autism and Down syndrome, are positive, says School of Kinesiology researcher Dale Ulrich. Follow up data shows that success stories like Noah spend less time sedentary, and they also become more social and independent, Ulrich says.

The research group also is looking at data to see if those riders participate more in their communities, Ulrich says.

Roughly 75 percent of the participants at the U-M bike camp, which ran in Ann Arbor last month, typically learn to ride in five days. Without specialized training, only 10-20 percent would learn to ride a bike, researchers say. The success rate for children with autism, like Noah, is a bit higher than for those with Down syndrome, Ulrich says.

"We assume they will, just like all children who learn to ride a bicycle, but we do not have that information yet," says Ulrich, who started the camp three years ago in partnership with Lose the Training Wheels Inc., which provides the special bikes the riders use.

Lose the Training Wheels runs camps throughout the country, though U-M is the only university to study bike riding and its effects on riders through that program. The bikes have graduated back wheels that start wide like rolling pins and get progressively narrower as the riders learn to balance without falling.

The U.S. Department of Education's National Institute for Disability Research and Rehabilitation recently funded the program for $570,000 over three more years to continue the research. Ulrich hopes the further study will help convince policy makers that bike riding should and can be taught in school.

"Most schools don't teach it in school, they think it's too difficult," Ulrich says. "We're hoping to demonstrate that learning to ride a bike is not that challenging if you can personalize the training and learn about the child ahead of time." Bike riding could go a long way to fighting public health problems of obesity, among other things, he says.

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