Big enough to balance on a two-wheeler but little enough to be impressionable, third-graders long have been the focus of intensive bicycle education in Palo Alto schools.
This week, 8-year-olds across Palo Alto brought their bikes to school for "bike rodeos," in which they took over the playgrounds to practice skills like how to steer around broken glass, what to do if a garbage bin is blocking the bike lane (look and scan over your left shoulder before steering around the obstacle) and how to navigate intersections.
The rodeos were among many bike-related events to mark Palo Alto's "Walk & Roll Week," celebrating ways to get around town by means other than the family car.
Organizers say the third-grade bike-safety program -- a staple of Palo Alto's elementary curriculum for 20 years -- has nurtured a bike culture and helped propel school bicycling rates to historic highs.
Fifty-one percent of Palo Alto's middle school students, 43 percent of high school students and 13 percent of elementary students typically ride their bikes to school, according to bike counts on campuses taken last month.
"Third grade is the age where children are developmentally ready to be stable on a bicycle, and we have a good chance to affect their lifelong bicycle skills," said Kathy Durham, a City of Palo Alto employee who has marshaled legions of parent volunteers to work on bicycle safety for two decades.
At Hoover Elementary School Tuesday, lead parent volunteer Zainab Jamal kept time and blew her whistle as 70 third-graders rotated among six different bike-training stations, including one that offered a tutorial on helmet fitting.
Blue tape was laid down on the playground to simulate bike lanes, and parent volunteers holding signs pretended to be cars. Large sponges stood in for "broken glass." Kids practiced their skills by biking around the circuits.
At one station, a uniformed Palo Alto police officer used real cars to teach kids how to peer around parked vehicles to make a safe exit from their driveways.
The bike rodeos focus on "targeted risk-reduction rather than scaring children or talking about how dangerous it is," Durham said.
"Yeah, it's dangerous, but there are ways you can reduce the risk by being predictable, visible and aware of what's going on around you."
The third-grade training is honed to address some of the top causes of bike accidents in Palo Alto, which, according to Durham, are cyclists not braking properly at stop signs; swerving out of bike lanes; coming out of driveways and not yielding properly at intersections.
In other Walk & Roll activities this week, elementary students made bike-themed sidewalk murals and competed for "golden sneaker" awards.
"Palo Alto is one of the most bike-friendly and environmentally conscious communities in the country. I can think of no better way to start a morning than a healthy, zero-emissions trip to school or work," said school district Superintendent Kevin Skelly, who bikes to work and around to school campuses daily in a helmet resembling a watermelon.
Across Palo Alto's 17 K-12 campuses, 31 percent of all student trips are by bike, compared to a national figure of 17 percent.
Free bike inspections, safety tips and route maps will be available Sunday, Oct. 13, at Bike Palo Alto!, a family-oriented event from 1 to 4 p.m. at El Carmelo Elementary School, 3024 Bryant St. (at Loma Verde Avenue). Families can depart from El Carmelo to explore three bike routes that highlight easy ways to get around the city to avoid traffic.