In this article we consider the ways that parents and children construct an object that has long been associated with North American childhood: the bicycle. We ask the question: is the bicycle a toy or a tool? At first glance, this seems like a straightforward distinction. For example, if an object serves a useful purpose, we classify it a tool. Hammers are tools because they help drive nails into wood. If the object serves no apparent purpose other than our own intrinsic enjoyment, it is a toy. Kites are toys because we gain no instrumental benefit by flying them; kites offer us only amusement and entertainment. Of course, it is not as clear as this. Sometimes toys become tools as ingenious and resourceful people find new uses for them. Tools become toys as we discover other objects that fulfill a function more efficiently or affordably. At times, we engage in public debates about the classification of objects as toys or tools. We saw this recently, when educators debated whether the fidget spinner was a toy that distracted students from learning or a tool that helped students focus on learning (Silver). These examples show that the meanings that objects hold are not inherent to the object but are actively constructed through social processes and situated in specific historical, geographical, and political contexts.
Understanding how we make meaning of objects is important because meanings impact on how objects circulate through everyday life and how they are used and valued. In a culture that values work over leisure, tools are socially valued yet ‘toy’ is a word loaded with judgment; although toys are objects of delight they are also associated with superficiality, consumerism, and a desire for status (Whitten). As manufacturers of ‘educational toys’ certainly understand, the construction of an object as a tool or toy shapes when, where, and by whom that object should be used, including the spaces they are allowed to occupy and the ways that children are permitted to engage with and use them (Brougère).
The bicycle is many things at once: it moves through space, it requires physical effort of the rider, and it is self-propelled. As an object, the bicycle has also held different meanings depending on the cultural, historical, and political context. Hoffman (6) calls the bicycle a ‘rolling signifier’ in that ‘it carries a diversity of signification depending on its location in time and space’. Throughout its 150-year history in North America, the bicycle has been a leisure-based status symbol of the progressive urban elite, a symbol of women’s liberation, and a transportation vehicle of the working poor, and the focus of a fitness craze (Turpin). Starting out as an adult leisure activity, the bicycle began to be associated with childhood in the 1950s, when the bicycle manufacturing industry began to turn its attention to selling bicycles to children rather than adults (Turpin 1). Through the 1950s and 1970s, advertisements and television shows began to represent the bicycle as a vehicle for childhood freedom, highlighting the bicycle as the quintessential childhood gift and the moment of learning to ride a bicycle a childhood milestone (Turpin; McDonald).
Although still constructed as an “indelible part of childhood” (Turpin, 1), the bicycle, and childhood, have changed since the days when the bicycle first gained its iconic status. Although new styles of bicycling (e.g., BMX, mountain) have emerged, the actual bicycling of children in terms of the amount of time spent riding and distance travelled has been on the decline for a generation (Cox; McDonald). Changing ideas about children’s health, development, and parental responsibilities to prepare children for their future have also raised anxieties about how, where, and how much time children spend engaged with ‘toys’ versus ‘tools’, and whether children should be playing or moving around outdoors, in the streets, unsupervised and alone (Alexander et al.; Valentine). A growing body of research highlights the ways in which childhood has become increasingly contained, immobilised, and institutionalised (Karsten; Rixon, Lomax, and O’Dell). In this context the object of the bicycle becomes more problematic given its features of mobility, physicality, and rider autonomy.
In this article we investigate the ways that children and parents construct meanings of the bicycle in childhood. We draw on data collected in 2019 and 2020 when we interviewed 24 bicycle-riding children (aged 10-16, rode independently at least once per week) and 19 bicycle-supportive parents about their perspectives and experiences of bicycling in the downtown and suburban areas of the small Canadian city in which they lived. As we elaborate below, children constructed the bicycle as a toy that allowed physical and environmental exploration. For parents, these meanings produced anxiety because they relied on children moving through space unsupervised. In the article we will show how parents managed their desires and worries in ways that at times reconfigured the meaning of ‘bicycle’. We point to the central role of emotion in enabling and limiting children’s bicycling opportunities. We close with a discussion of the implications of these findings in the construction and promotion of children’s bicycling.
Children's Constructions of the Bicycle in Childhood
Our interviews with children revealed that while it was appreciated as a vehicle that could get them places faster than walking, children primarily constructed the bicycle as a toy. In fact, children constructed the bicycle as two different types of toys. First, the bicycle was a physical toy that afforded riders the opportunity to connect with their environment in novel ways and in so doing, to experiment with their physicality. For MK (boy, 11) the best part about riding was practicing ‘tricks’, or small manoeuvres with a bicycle like popping it up on one wheel, or jumping the bike over an obstacle. He had a number of favourite ‘trick spots’ – curbs, steps, benches, small hills – spread through the city that he would stop at as he made his way across town. Ross (383) sees this as ‘discipline and disorder’, noting, with respect to children’s unaccompanied school journeys, “the potential for impromptu play responding to features along the route”. She adds that “such free-play can only occur when children are able to set their own agenda, making decisions along the way”, implying that journeys may be more ‘playful’ – and bicycles more ‘toylike’ – when adults are not co-present.
MK explained that he liked tricks because there was nothing at stake, other than possibly being teased by his brother. At the same time, friends were a source of inspiration and creativity as kids worked together to test out tricks and record their performances:
Q: What do you like about tricks?
MK: They’re easy to learn. If you mess one up, no one makes fun of you for it, no one laughs at you.
Q: What is your least favourite part about riding?
MK: When I do miss a trick, my brother makes fun of me.
Alternatively, GL (boy, 15) sought out trails in nearby wooded areas on his mountain bike where he would engage with the rocky and rooted terrain at different speeds. For GL, the fun of mountain biking was that anything could happen:
Q: What it's like to do the trails? What happens and what do you like about it?
GL: Just the craziness of the unexpected sometimes. And like, the downhill obviously, not [to] have to do anything and just roll down the hill through all these roots and rocks and stuff. It is quite challenging.
Second, the bicycle was an adventure toy that afforded children the opportunity to explore the local environment with no agenda other than to take in the surroundings and see what’s there. Whereas with riding for transportation “you’re trying to get somewhere, maybe going faster to try to get there faster, obviously, but for leisure you're just having fun enjoying it and just looking around, you see what's around you” (GL). Perhaps less risky than trick riding, adventure riding still required some bravery as it required the rider to venture into the unknown. Given this, it was the experience of exploring and discovering their surroundings that engendered joy and exhilaration. Children enthusiastically described their journeys and the special spots and surprising moments they experienced along the way. Whereas trick and trail riding required focus and intensity, adventure riding encouraged openness and receptivity. NT (boy, 10) explained, “there's no rules that you [need] to go here. It's, just, you can bike wherever you want. And do whatever. Like it's not somebody pushing you to go a certain speed or slow down or anything. I really like that.”
Being afforded the autonomy to move as they wanted through space was the most treasured aspect of bicycle-riding. TL (girl, 12) explained, “I get to go places that I wouldn't normally get to go when I’m with other people. And then I get to choose where we go”. SG (girl, 12) related her experience of freedom on a bicycle to her right to autonomy: “you can do whatever you want and however you want, and its your own opinion and you don't have to follow anybody else's. You can be free.”
In a culture that values productivity and improvement, toys are sometimes dismissed as objects with little value other than to provide amusement or fill time. This is why we often see toy manufacturers working to establish associations between toys and various improvement-oriented or utilitarian purposes, as this helps legitimise toys as good, valuable, and necessary (Brougère). However, the descriptions above highlight the richness of experience that comes from engaging with objects as toys. Commonalities across these two uses of the bicycle were the elements of creativity, curiosity, and low-stakes outcome, and an emotional experience of joy, satisfaction, and exhilaration.
Parents’ Constructions of the Bicycle in Childhood
Among parents, the construction of the bicycle as a childhood toy provoked a wider array of emotions that included joy and exhilaration but also fear and worry. For parents, the lesser worry of the two uses of the bicycle was of the bicycle as a physical toy. Parents appreciated the physical skills that their children learned on the bike and acknowledged, with relatively little concern, that injury might result. One parent (LL) described “falling off the bike or a slip, I mean, it happens to the best of bikers. I'm not worried about my kids in terms of their skill, it would just be an accident”.
Vastly more troubling to parents was the construction of the bicycle as an adventure toy as the activity produced by this kind of toy – adventuring on bike – involved children moving greater distances through their environment and without adult supervision. Although parents could understand the joy and exhilaration of adventure riding, they were concerned about the dangers posed by the riding environment. Parents were fearful of cars for how they moved quickly and, speaking from their positionality as drivers, how car drivers paid little attention to bicycles. MM lamented that in her suburban neighbourhood drivers didn’t look for bicycles as they backed out of a driveway. This meant that children on bicycles had to assume responsibility for their own safety, and parents worried whether their child had the decision-making and social capabilities for this:
Probably getting hurt would be the biggest [fear], even. If we're out and on a busier road, and he were to wipe out or not be paying attention or something. He's not really in any situations right now where he would be. I'd worry about him being approached by anyone or anything like that. (NT)
Concerns related to children travelling alone in public space are longstanding. In the 1990s, Valentine reported that parents feared that their children lacked the capabilities to travel safety on their own in public space, and that these fears inhibited children’s autonomous mobilities. Since then, notions of the ‘vulnerability’ of childhood have worked to intensify and expand parenthood to include ‘risk management’ through supervision and monitoring (Lee et al.). Through this, time spent with children, including time spent chauffeuring children from place to place, has also become associated with parental care. McLaren and Parusel argue that this form of “parental mobility care” is one of the ways in which mothers (and fathers to a lesser degree) implement ‘good mothering’ (1426). One parent (NF) noted that although she was comfortable with her child biking alone, she worried about “feedback I might get from neighbours or whatever, right, judging”. Another parent (MM) illustrates the association between knowing your child’s whereabouts and good parenting:
The mom’s let them [friend and brother] already go on the bikes together, right. So, he's got that confidence already built with his brother, and by himself. He shows up at my door and rings the door bell and there he is, waving at me, and I'm like, ‘Oh my god, does his mom know where he is?’ (laughs).
Managing Feelings and Reconfiguring Meanings
Parents simultaneously desired to support their child’s biking and worried about their child travelling alone through public space. They sought ways to manage these competing feelings. Some parents achieved this by reconfiguring their construction of the bicycle in ways that made parental accompaniment more sensible and acceptable. For example, EK, who always accompanied her son on bike rides, highlighted the physical effort required to ride a bicycle and the benefits that resulted from riding, such as greater physical endurance, strength, and skill. In other words, to her the bicycle was less a toy and more a piece of equipment that helped people achieve self-improvement goals. When the focus of riding is fitness, the context of riding – where one travels and with whom – matters only in relation to the achievement of fitness goals. She discussed how she rode with her son so they could fulfill fitness goals together:
EK: I want to ride a bike with [son, 12] because I want to have, like, exercise to do, and it’s better. We have YMCA membership, but I prefer outdoors. In the wintertime last year we we were biking at the YMCA on those stationary ones. I enjoy those ones as well.
Q: But not the same as going outside?
EK: No, we prefer outside. We prefer outdoors.
TS, who also accompanied her children on bicycle rides, reconfigured bicycling as an adventurous activity for the family, rather than solely for children. In her interviews, she highlighted bicycling as a way to strengthen family bonds and build great memories from their bike rides together:
TS: It's brought us closer together now that we all have a bike. Like, my boyfriend is pretty physical, and he's already got planned out trails he wants to take them on in the summer. So, I think it has brought up some exciting new adventures for us to look forward to and nobody can feel left out because we all can bike together.
Certainly, the joy and thrill of riding can be a shared experience for parents and children (McIlvenny). Children did indicate their appreciation for these rides, particularly because they ventured further with parents than they were permitted when riding alone. However, family biking also produced a different kind of bike-riding experience for children, with a shift in position from ‘pilot’ to ‘crew’ and their attention directed inward, toward others in the group:
GL (boy, 15): when I'm biking with my friends and family I am always watching out for them, like making sure they're keeping up, or if you're keeping the right pace if you're in the front. When you're by yourself, just like focused on doing, you're not really thinking about anything else.
Our intent is not to dismiss the value of the bicycle as child exercise equipment or a family adventure toy. But we do wish to point out the ease with which the bicycle can be made sense of as a range of different-use objects in the context of contemporary childhood. Indeed, in this context, concerns about children’s physical health, development, and preparation for the future have been transforming – both ‘healthifying’ (Alexander et al. 78), and instrumentalising – children’s play for a generation.
That said, there were parents who continued to support their children’s engagement with the bicycle as a toy, and their autonomous bike-riding. Although these parents certainly had worries, they connected bicycling to an array of positive emotions – joy, exuberance, pride, calm – and drew on these emotions to bolster their support. Parents often associated these positive emotions with memories of their own childhood biking experiences, which they wanted their children to experience. They also directly observed them in their children, after they returned from a ride. These moments offered parents ‘feedback’ that helped bolster their commitment to holding space for their children’s adventure riding:
LL: They're pretty proud when they come home, muddy and dirty. Yeah, they'll tell me things that they saw or just things that would stand out like, ‘oh, the bugs are really bad’, or ‘oh, we found this cool part of a trail’ or [they] don't really meet people that they know on the trail. But yeah, they’ll give me some feedback. ‘RL almost ran into a tree’. ‘JL almost fell off trying to jump a log’: the highlights.
The shared experience of the COVID-19 pandemic also connected parents to the emotional experience of bike-riding, bolstering parental support for children’s autonomous bike-riding because the pandemic made the emotional experience of bike-riding so much more apparent to parents. At the time of our spring 2020 interviews, children were just beginning to surface from a three-month lockdown period in which schooling was online, extra-curricular activities had been cancelled, and a public health order had drastically curtailed their movements outside the home. Although now we better understand the extent of the psychological impact of the lockdown on children (Panchal et al.), at that time parents were seeing its impacts on their children first-hand. In this context, the bicycle took on a new meaning as a vehicle that afforded a way for children escape the home and have some time and space to themselves:
KK: For [daughter, age 12], definitely there are times that with two younger siblings, she'll just need to go. ‘I'm done. I need space.’ She'll go for a bike ride and that’s a little bit of a calm downtime for her. Right. Anyway, she says she enjoys it, it's healthy and gets her outside and away from your younger siblings.
Parents increasingly supported children’s independent riding, again based on their observations of the emotional experience of children’s biking experiences. Both parents and children described these bike rides as mood-changing. Parents were able to recognise how biking offered children a time and space to “cool down” or “unwind from other things that are going on.” JJ [girl, age 13] explained:
When I go on bike rides, I was like, kind of in a bad mood. If I'm angry at someone, if I'm sad, if I'm frustrated. Just flick a switch. Like, frustrated to happy; or angry to confident; or something like that. I don't know how it works, but it just boosts my mood every time I go on a bike ride. And then it is a great day.
This article illustrates the different ways that parents and children construct and negotiate meanings of the bicycle in childhood. It highlights the connections between meaning and use, and the ways that different meanings encourage different ways of thinking about how the bicycle should be used, where, with whom, and for what reasons. The analysis also points to the centrality of emotions in the process of meaning-making. In doing so, it builds on previous research that has illustrated now negative emotions (reluctance, worry, fear, anxiety) work to limit children’s mobilities (Fotel and Thomsen; Rixon et al.). At the same time, it also builds on recent research that illustrates the ways that attention to positive emotions (joy, pride, exhilaration, calm) can enable children’s bicycling (Silonsaari et al.) while centring children’s experiences in conversations about play and toys in contemporary childhood.
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