Put Me in, Coach: Bringing Youth to Bicycling and Walking

Dave CowanIn Safe Routes to School we see countless examples of elementary schools led by passionate adults and fanatical students that knock walking and bicycling out of the proverbial park – but, as a movement, I believe we struggle to connect as frequently and in meaningful ways around active transportation with both middle and high school age students. There are a number of reasons for the invariable elementary school success, but in terms of older students perhaps we see less frequent success because we don’t know how to authentically connect with this age group. I am not the exception, I remember many struggles in the days I’d be working in middle schools, tentatively approaching each class or group as I tried to navigate the tedious, ever-changing waters of adolescent students. Youth engagement isn’t just a buzz word, it is an approach to working with youth that leaves behind past ideas of youth as decoration, tokens or even passive participants and moves towards a more involved approach that puts youth in the driver seat, initiating projects, directing outcomes and sharing decisions with adults.  

Enter one of my new heroes – the charismatic Sam Wood of Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theater Program, a program that promotes health through the arts. I met Sam for coffee recently to hear about how he has managed to do such an incredible job getting youth interested and involved in topics like Safe Routes to School.(Including the creation and dissemination of an impactful video-voice project on the perils of walking to school in Commerce City, CO – The Long (and Scary) Walk Home.) In an effort to crack the DaVinci-esque code of authentically engaging students, Sam shared with me the five principles of engaging youth that are the cumulative result of Sam informally surveying students over the years about what they want out of their projects:

1)      They want tangible results. No one wants to work on something that won’t have an effect. Make sure there are results and if possible, work to meter out small wins throughout the project to keep students interested and engaged.

2)      They want life skills. Yes, you heard me right. Youth want to gain skills from participating in projects – make sure they know what those skills will be and how they will attain them.

3)      They want to be an actual partner, not a token. Photos of kids standing in front of a banner are great fodder for Walk to School Days, but youth want the opportunity to be heard and to see what happens when they are heard, as a partner at the table. Empower them with the voice to do that.

4)      They need personal stories to feel connected to the cause. We’ve heard about the promise of storytelling in Safe Routes to School before, helping students find their voice and tell their story gives them an irrefutable connection to the cause.

5)      They want to have fun. Without fail, youth want to have fun. Experience shows that what they mean is they want an opportunity to socialize and spend time connecting with their peers to create a sense of community – ensure the opportunity to do that.

The next time you sit down to work with students on a Safe Routes to School program, think about how to authentically empower them to initiate and lead the project by ensuring you’ve addressed the needs of these five principles and, like the Educational Theater Program, you will certainly see success.


Local Practice and Policy, a blog written by Dave Cowan, covers many of the multifaceted aspects of his work here at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. Focusing on best practices, voices from the field and reflections on the Safe Routes to School movement as a whole, this blog attempts to share a sliver of the good vibes, happy stories, and great people Dave has the pleasure of working with to further Safe Routes to School on a daily basis.