MANKATO – More than 1,200 students from Mankato's 10 elementary schools are learning bike safety this spring as part of a statewide program encouraging communities to make themselves more welcoming to bikers and walkers.

Mankato's program comes with an unexpected bonus: a fleet of 54 bikes purchased with a charitable grant from the Host Committee for Super Bowl LII, held three months ago in Minneapolis.

"We're excited to give the kids this opportunity," said Jason Grovom, principal of Kennedy Elementary School. "We're trying to encourage health and wellness, encourage the students to walk or bike to school if they can. We have set up some safe routes to school.

"The kids love it," Grovom added. "They think it's the greatest thing."

Out on the playground last week, gym teacher Sharon Patterson was briskly instructing a fourth-grade class in her best playground voice. She used a special curriculum developed for Minnesota schools by the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, the state Department of Transportation and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota.

"Remember — A, B, C," she called out, reminding the students to check air, brakes and chain on their bikes before they mounted up to ride. The students took a few laps around the blacktopped area, then broke into groups to practice stopping, signaling, turning and looking over their shoulders for other traffic, a move called "scanning."

All the while, Patterson called out encouragement and occasionally paused the action to give the group tips such as the "power pedal" move for getting away from stop signs.

The Walk! Bike! Fun! curriculum has reached more than 150,000 students throughout the state since 2013, said Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance.

"We train health teachers, phy-ed teachers and others in the community to use this curriculum," Grilley said. "We've trained close to 600 teachers in almost every corner of the state and every place in between." The late James Oberstar, a Democrat who represented northeast Minnesota in Congress for 36 years, was an early and avid supporter of bike education in Minnesota, he said.

From 1969 to 2009, the number of kids who walked or biked to school fell from 48 percent to 13 percent, Grilley noted, adding that a coalition of cycling and health groups is seeking $6 million in this legislative session for Safe Routes to School infrastructure.

"The motivation is healthy kids, healthy communities and a healthy environment," he said, adding that studies have shown bike-friendly communities are perceived as better places to raise families — and do business.

Mankato is one of the more bike-friendly communities in greater Minnesota, Grilley said, along with Rochester, Winona, Duluth, Grand Marais, Fergus Falls, Willmar and Frazee.

Back on the playground, Patterson hops on a bike and leads the students on a few laps around the school, including a stretch of city street.

"Remember, we are just like cars on the street," she calls out to the riders who follow her in single file.

After the students take off their helmets and put their bikes away, they're filled with excitement from the vigorous outing.

"I like to be outdoors," said Landen Haglin.

"It's amazing! Pretty cool!" chimed in his classmate Raina Lewis-Wolters.

Patterson said she sees a growing confidence as the students master skills that will take them wherever they want to go.

"I want to educate them to do this safely," she said, "and then do it the rest of their lives."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402