Develop a lifelong love of all things engine-powered in kids by starting them off slowly and safely, in an environment where adults can support them.
Justin Dawes, 32, of Irvine, California may be typical of many adult “motorheads.” He recalls waking up on his eighth Christmas morning to find a dirt bike under the tree in the living room, next to shiny new ones for his siblings. To this day, Dawes, Media Relations Coordinator at Kawasaki Motors Corp, meets up with his extended family and in-laws frequently to go riding and camping together.
Many instructors recommend that kids begin a lifetime of motorsports on a dirt bike, where they can learn to appreciate how balance, speed, braking and throttle affect a vehicle. Some will stay on dirt bikes and enjoy off-road and/or extreme sports, others will race motorcycles, still others will grow into an ATV and all, probably, will drive an automobile.
In my own family, two motorcycle enthusiast parents living in New York City weren’t able to introduce dirt bike riding to their child until they took a family vacation at a rural destination where motorsports thrive. It may take years before our teen can afford to ride dirt bikes, ATVs and motorcycles as frequently as he’d like, but during our travels we’ve watched him grow into safely handling personal watercraft, snowmobiles and dune buggies. As he practices for his driver’s license, we can see an enthusiastic but cautious driver emerge, one that we’ll want to borrow our car. And that’s worth a lot.
First Steps for Young Learners
You don’t have to be a motorhead or even own a dirt bike to introduce your kids to the sport. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation provides subsidized classes in basic safety instruction to new motorcycle riders of all ages through the support of the major manufacturers. Local instructors, who are listed on their website, can often provide families with loaner equipment so that kids have a chance to try the sport before committing to an equipment purchase.
Our son began his training with an MSF instructor at Montana’s Bull Run Ranch and has had supervised outings on rental equipment ranging from an ATV in Brazil and a snowmobile in Wyoming; to a jetski in Cancun and dune buggy in Oregon.
Similar to the MSF’s work, the ATV Safety Institute offers training to riders of all skill levels, ages 8 to 80, who have purchased a new vehicle. ATVSI classes are paid for by credits issued by the major vehicle manufacturers.
All-terrain vehicle instructors like Eric Dennison (affiliated with the Mines and Meadows ATV Resort in Wampum, Pennsylvania) also provide local ATV safety instruction to ages 6 to 15 through the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. He began his motorsports career on an ATC or mini-trike and considers it great family entertainment. “I’ll do anything to get kids outdoors and away from video games,” he adds.
Selecting the Right Vehicle for your Child
Youth ATVs (often broken down into categories like ages 6+ or ages 12+) remain a constant safety issue for the industry, as many parents prefer to invest in a machine that their kids can “grow into” rather than one that is appropriately and safely sized for small riders. Parents aren’t the only ones to blame. A recent survey of Virginia dealerships done by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) showed that, in marketing ATVs, only 30% of the dealerships surveyed warned the prospective purchaser of the age recommendations and recommended against the sale, 45% warned the prospective purchaser, but discounted the warning and encouraged the sale, and 25% percent tried to sell the ATV without any explanation as to the age recommendations.
After years of teaching kids and adults, instructor Eric Dennison has rarely seen small ATVs for rent but judges the safe and correct size vehicle for his classes by students’ height and weight, not their age.
Unfortunately, recent legislation has made youth-sized off-road vehicles even harder to come by. After the Chinese lead-based toys scare of 2008, the CPSC banned the sale of anything to children under 12 whose lead content exceeded 300ppm. Since that ruling effectively prevented off-road vehicle manufacturers and dealers from offering child-sized products to anyone under age 12, the CPSC has requested a stay on enforcement of the rule, so that smaller ATVs and dirt bikes – the safest vehicles for kids who are into “dirt” sports — can continue to be sold.
Notes the Honorable Thomas H. Moore in his CPSC ruling (April 16, 2009): “American parents seem to be willing to accept the risks of their children riding these vehicles, so it’s the agency’s task to ensure that the vehicles are as safe as possible. One safety rule the agency has stressed is keeping kids off of adult-sized ATVs.”
Tips from the Pro’s to Get Kids Started
In order to start young riders off right, Dennison recommends that parents purchase a small ATV and give kids exposure to the sport in their own backyard. ATVs with 90cc engines are often sold with a remote control that allows adults to shut off the unit from a distance, regulate the throttle or enact other precautionary measures. Getting used to the machine under adult supervision is essential before heading out to a public park and encountering traffic, Dennison says.
Raymond Ropa, Editor/Owner of www.BucketRiders.com and father of two sons, ages 5 and 8, is committed to ensuring that kids grow up to be motorheads. He suggests that parents start with adequate safety gear. “Minimum is helmet, neck collar, chest protector, knee guards, boots, gloves and goggles.
Ropa notes that his son Will doesn’t mind putting on essential safety gear “because dad wears it and we ‘look cool’ according to him.”
“Gear is expensive,” he adds. “So I have a network of parents and we swap gear or buy second hand on some of it for a fraction of the cost. You can cut costs a lot by networking with other parents of young riders. Helmets are the only thing I don’t buy used. We only wear new helmets and we replace them every 3 years or when they outgrow them.”
Families use favorite blogs and resources like CraigsList to find used geat at value prices. “The gear is a great tool for keeping the fear factor down too with kids,” adds Ropa. “They will wreck and when they do, it doesn’t hurt so much and they are not afraid to get back on.”
Just as encouragement and repetition are part of learning to ride a bicycle, Ropa notes that “There’s nothing wrong with a bump on the knee to help learn respect and limitations of a machine… but you don’t want injuries that frighten them.”
Give Motorsports a Try Before you Buy
Families like mine, city-bound or not, may not be ready to commit to an investment in a dirt bike or ATV for their children for practical or economic reasons. Some kids may have an intense but short-lived interest in motorsports, that may not last as long the purchased vehicle’s lifespan.
Therefore, you may want to make vehicle safety training one of the goals in some of your family learning vacations. In his 20+ years of riding from Mexico to Canada, instructor Eric Dennison has rarely seen small ATVs for rent, but that’s changing.
At resorts like Pensylvania’s Mines and Meadows, adults must wait till their kids are 16-years-old to enjoy the off-road trails, because use of the 350cc to 400cc ATVs in their rental pool is restricted to older teens. Opportunities abound elsewhere to ride; use this FTF guide to Off Road Riding to learn about some facilities where safety and equipment maintenance are the priority and where fun is guaranteed.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.