By Emily J. Weitz
This is the third summer that Big Mama, the 18-Wheeler with limitless imagination, has landed at Hayground Camp to bring kids multi-sensory education in a curriculum called Blocks, Trucks and Art. But now, instead of overlooking a wide-open field, Big Mama has a brand new view: a pump track designed to get kids and adults back into the flow and joy of bike riding.
At first, Jeff Mayer wasn’t sure his background as a professional BMX rider would be a focus of the mission at Hayground. And it’s not. BMX riding implies extreme sports and even a little danger. But what Mr. Mayer did find is that kids wanted to learn to ride their bikes. It’s a new generation, and learning to ride on the city streets is not a given.
“Being out here and having this green grass to teach kids how to ride bikes,” said Mr. Mayer, “it really took off.”
Last year, they started integrating BMX instruction into the Blocks, Trucks, Art curriculum, which is implemented by Jeff and his wife, Angela, a longtime educator. But this year, they convinced Jon Snow — co-chair of the Hayground School board and the director of the school and its camp program — and the school community to invest in something new and completely unlike anything you can find elsewhere on the East End: a pump track.
Unlike other tracks, pump tracks are made of dirt and designed to be integrated into the environment. The idea is that when a kid takes his/her bike onto the track, there’s no need to pedal. The way the track curves and swoops and dips allows for the bike to gain natural momentum. It requires balance and core strength, but the power is in the track itself.
“The track design has different angles that teach balance,” said Mr. Mayer, “and you use your whole body, and create muscle memory. Kids are doing all this without even thinking about it. They’re learning without realizing it.”
This concept is at the heart of what the Mayers do through Blocks, Trucks and Art as well. It’s multi-sensory learning through play. It’s something they’ve found is deeply lacking in a new generation of students, especially for kids who are growing up divorced from nature.
“When you’re surrounded by steel and concrete and noise, you lose nature,” said Mayer. “With the blocks as well as the pump track, it’s multi-sensory. You’re using your hands.”
Jim Delavelle, who has designed pump tracks all over the world, helped to build the one at Hayground. He encourages kids not only to ride the track, but to care for it, to understand it, to get their hands dirty. As they were building the track, one little boy was climbing the mounds of dirt.
“Watch him climb the pile of dirt,” said Mr. Delavalle. “He feels it. He’s squeezing it and crunching it. Kids have to interact with nature.”
That’s why at Hayground, they’re implementing a “Dig to Ride” philosophy. For kids who are interested in riding the track, they need to water it, to smooth out the jumps and to make sure it’s well maintained.
“Our whole program is about getting kids physical, using their bodies,” said Mr. Mayer.
Riding the pump track is a whole other level of exercise.
“There’s a constant circulation of blood,” said Mr. Delavalle. “It stimulates the circulatory system. When you’re lifting weights at the gym, you trap the blood. But this it’s getting circulated through your whole body.”
But what gets kids — and adults — out on the track isn’t the health benefits, or even the desire to connect to nature. What gets them out on the track is that it’s a whole lot of fun.
“There’s something about a bike,” said Mr. Mayer. “I don’t think anyone forgets the first time they rode a bike. I see parents see their kids on the track, my wife included. It’s wild watching how many parents will jump on a bike because it looks like fun.”
For Mr. Delavalle, who’s made constructing pump tracks his life’s work, it’s about even more than that. He weaves these dirt tracks through back yards, helping people manage their landscapes in sustainable ways. At Hayground, the pump track will help absorb rain water, and sustainable grasses in the midst of the track will grow in rhythms.
“We’ve asphalted and concreted enough,” he said. “This track, the design, the way the plants come in, this is a human psalm.”