George Mason University

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Where do good bicyclists grow? In a garden, of course

April 12, 2019   /   by Damian Cristodero

(Left to right) Rick Holt, Ellen Rodgers and Carley Fisher-Maltese were the Mason team that developed the Traffic Gardens and accompanying curriculum at two Washington, D.C., elementary schools. "They just ran with the program," said DDOT policy analyst Jonathan Rogers. Photo by Marileny Smith.

The new traffic gardens at Neval Thomas and Maude E. Aiton elementary schools in Washington, D.C., are not really gardens at all—at least not in the traditional sense. They are mini streetscapes installed on the schools’ property to help educate preschool students on bicycle safety and rules of the road.

Even so, it is not inappropriate to say these gardens “grow” safe bicyclists and a healthier community.

“We wanted to construct safe spaces where students can engage in a dramatic and risky play activity to learn a lifelong skill,” said Ellen Rodgers, associate dean in George Mason University’s College of Education and Human Development.

Rodgers is the principal investigator for the design and construction of the gardens, curriculum development and the innovative research that will come from them. Rick Holt, a trainer and organizational development consultant in Mason’s Office of Human Resources and Payroll, and a Mason master’s student in educational psychology, is the project manager and research coprincipal investigator. Early childhood education assistant professor Carley Fisher-Maltese is the lead in the curriculum and research activities.

The project is funded by a $150,000 grant from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) through Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Vision Zero Initiative, which aims to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries on Washington, D.C., roads.

The gardens also provide a transition to the bike-riding instruction mandated for all District of Columbia Public Schools second-graders.

“Education is one of the most important aspects of Vision Zero,” said Jonathan Rogers, a DDOT policy analyst. “We want kids to have safe bikes and also learn the basic rules of the road and traffic safety in general. It’s touching kids right away at school.”

The Mason team was integral in the construction of the gardens.

They solicited input from students and the community. They worked with Fionnuala Quinn, director of Discover Traffic Gardens, and Rob Goodill and Mary Butcher of Torti Gallas + Partners on the gardens’ layouts and installations.

The team purchased 48-inch street signs and ramps so students, on their school-provided balance bikes, could practice riding on slopes. And they developed a classroom curriculum on bike and street safety.

“They just ran with the program,” DDOT's Rogers said. “It was great working with all the partners at George Mason.”

As for the research, students who use the gardens will be audio- and videotaped, with permission, to record their interactions so the team can learn if what was taught in the classroom transfers to the playground.

“How do play and recess contribute to social, emotional and cognitive growth?” Holt said. “We have found no research on traffic gardens in general or bike education that addresses these outcomes. You can find data on the students’ biking skill level but not the cognitive or social-emotional aspects of it.”

Miriam Kenyon, director of health and physical education for District of Columbia Public Schools, said the city plans to add up to five traffic gardens a year on public school playgrounds. Kenyon said she would like Mason to again help gather input from the local communities and perhaps create a template for the installation of the gardens.

“People do research and they wait for a lifetime to figure out the impact,” Rodgers said. “Now, I’m involved in a project where there is no waiting time. At every stage there has been affirmative impact. It’s been incredible.”