Women in Urbanism Aotearoa created a special weekend event to bring girls out to play on bikes, in partnership with the Auckland Women’s Centre, Auckland Transport Walking and Cycling, and special guest, Olympic BMX medallist Sarah Walker. Emma McInnes reports on how ‘Pump Tracks are for Girls’ brightened up a rainy weekend and empowered young riders. 

Right on 10am, children and their bikes began to materialise in Grey Lynn Park, decorating the pump track scene in raincoats and rainboots of vibrant blues, reds, yellows, pinks, adding colour to the dull grey, and bringing life and joy to the track.

Girls owning the track.

Plenty just showed up in singlets and tights; the rain was no drama to them, compared to adults like myself. I don’t think I can really communicate just how rad all the girls were. Here’s some action shots:

Ready, set, go!
Colour and movement!
Sheer joy.
As much fun as going round and round the track: hanging at the top and swapping stories.

Oh, and who said humans don’t like cycling in the rain? There wasn’t just a little rain, there was a lot of rain, and it didn’t stop the girls showing up! They’d registered in advance and they were coming, rainy or not.

The event was aimed at girls around the 7-11 age range, and we also had some very cute balance bikes on hand to make sure children of all ages were able to give the event a go. And they did.

Stride bikes rock!

So why did we organize this event? We’d noticed – and we’d been hearing – that the fantastic new pump track in Grey Lynn was mainly being used by boys and older children, with a relative absence of girls and younger children.

We also know that plenty of research into access and play space has shown that boys tend to dominate areas of play from an early age. (For example, Mitchell et al (2016) note that “boys have more independent mobility than girls, granting them greater access to physical activity opportunities present within their neighbourhood.”) So we wanted to give time and space to those who typically wouldn’t get a go in this kind of space.

This was an opportunity for girls to have a go on an awesome bike track, made even more appealing by the opportunity to hang out with the legendary Sarah Walker, three time world BMX champion (!) and Olympic medallist (!!) and New Zealand’s first BMX Olympian (!!!).

The fabulous Sarah Walker. We honestly can’t say enough nice things about her!

Sarah was so generous with her time – she was kind and helpful to all the children using the track, and is a wonderful role model. She taught the kids some neat tricks and tips, and spent over two hours riding around the pump track with them. We’re so very grateful!

We also hear one parent has already had difficulties removing a helmet off her kid’s head – apparently Sarah signed it, so now the child is going to sleep in it. Bless.

It seems obvious, but the more girls who use spaces like the Grey Lynn Pump Track, the more comfortable they’ll be using these spaces, and the more welcome other girls will feel. We decided that getting together a group of girls to use space dedicated for them would be a really effective way of reminding them that these public spaces of play are for them too.

Pump tracks are for girls. And mums, and dads, and brothers, and best friends.

On the day, we collected some feedback from parents and children. From the small sample, parents overwhelmingly said they don’t let their children go off to their neighbourhood parks and play spaces unsupervised. But in every case where a parent noted this, they also said they wished they could let them go unsupervised. Busy roads, fast speeds on neighbourhood streets, poor cycle routes, lack of drinking fountains, adequate shade and fences around playgrounds were some of the key barriers to allowing unsupervised play.

Research into outdoor play supports this: it shows that parents are less likely to let their kids play outside unsupervised, usually because of concerns about traffic and strangers. But the more you spend time with your kids in the public spaces in your neighbourhood, the more you’ll run into other families, and the stronger a sense of community you’ll develop, which tends to result in kids feeling more confident, and parents feeling more comfortable that other people will watch out for their kids.

It takes a village.

We need to prioritise stronger communities, because this means more opportunities for kids to have freedom to play outside. And crucially, more opportunities for young girls to participate in public spaces, too. Unsupervised time to play outside or travel to school without a adult is really important for children’s personal development, and we need to be building neighbourhoods that support this.

One thing that Women in Urbanism would really welcome is to build a panel of parents who can take part in future research about how and where children play in our cities. If you’d like to take part in this panel, please get in touch

We’re also inviting people to participate in this survey:“Children and Public Spaces: a survey for parents who want better play spaces!”

We’d also point you towards Kiwi Play Safe, an awesome local campaign that aims to get more shade in playgrounds and better fencing on playgrounds near busy roads. Please check it out.

As the event came to a close, the children didn’t disappear nearly as fast as they’d showed up. Many lingered to get selfies with Sarah, and to have a few more turns on the track before the magic of the morning dissipated. One family was all set to go home and get dry… but their daughter politely negotiated that her parents should just go wait in the car for her while she kept riding. What better proof that girls enjoy and need accessible and inclusive public spaces, and that Pump Tracks are for Girls too!

— Emma McInnes

(PS The event was filmed by Top Shelf Productions for a series about people on bikes, and we hope to see it on our telly real soon.)

Everyone wanted a selfie with Sarah, and why not.
Sarah Walker (in the helmet) with the Women in Urbanism team (from the left) Emma, Sarah, Gabriella and Elisabeth.
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