I want to ride my bicycle! Safe cycling routes for kids in Malta

Dr. Marie Briguglio is an environmental economist, academic, mother and author of No Man’s Land.
Suzanne Maas is a PhD candidate in sustainable mobility and an environmental activist.
Both Marie and Suzanne are avid cycling commuters.

It’s another perfect-weather-sunny-day with zero chance of rain. Another day ideal for bicycling. Images of happy families cycling though rugged country lanes or empty scenic roads immediately come to mind. Only to be quashed by the harsh reality that there seem to be none in Malta. Fact 1: Malta has one the highest rates of cars per person in Europe.  Fact 2: The present infrastructure is heavily geared towards vehicles and cycling infrastructure is pretty terrible.  Fact 3: Maltese children are among the most obese and starved of open spaces in Europe.

Happily, we have found some time to present to you with a new fact! There are some places where you can actually cycle with children (for more than 10 minutes) and feel relatively safe.  Here are some of them.

The Pembroke Cycle Path (4 km both ways)

The Pembroke Natura 2000 area is a great place to start cycling! It has a network of paths that are safe and easy to use plus has the added bonus of finishing near Pembroke playground. It’s compatible with driving as it’s easy to park the car close by too, so it is also suitable for those not yet confident cycling on roads. The cycle path starts right behind the football ground and includes segments in cement, tarmac and even metal grid to allow the flora and fauna to continue to thrive, as well as rocky parts that can be a bit rougher terrain. You will cycle past the Reverse Osmosis Plant, through fields and garrigue, with sea views all the way up to Madliena Tower. There are several paths and tracks you can explore, for example going up to the Pembroke BMX track to admire or try out some tricks.

The Isla-Kalkara promenade (8km both ways)

Starting from near the Isla regatta club, on the road passing underneath the Gardjola, admire the wonderful views across the Grand Harbour towards Valletta. There’s a wide pavement on which little ones could cycle. Follow the promenade flanking Isla until you reach the buildings along Dock 1, cross the bridge over to Bormla and continue following the pavement along the waterfront. Cycle until reaching Fort St. Angelo and find your way to the other side of Birgu from the path underneath St. Angelo mansions. You have to dismount and take this short path on foot – cycling is not allowed. But on the other side you are rewarded with a wonderful view of restored Villa Bighi and the Esplora Science Centre. Follow the local road alongside the water until Kalkara. Keep an eye out for the local ducks at the slipway, where sometimes you even find horses bathing! In Kalkara follow the promenade and pavement until reaching the boatyard, or make the short climb up to Esplora, where there is a playground and a cafe to reward the whole family for reaching the finish.

The Marsaskala promenade (5 km both ways)

For younger children, the promenade along the bay of Marsaskala may be a suitable place to practice their skill. You can start all the way from Zonqor point and follow the pavement and promenade until Jerma palace, or for a shorter trip, start from the Marsaskala church. There are plenty of nice spots to stop along the way: the playground, several ice-cream shops, or the rocky coast and saltpans just before reaching Jerma. Along the coast there are also several places suitable for a swim.

Xgħajra to Smart City (and beyond, between 3 to 6 km both ways)

Starting from the far end of Xgħajra (where the coastal walking path towards Zonqor starts), enjoy the wide promenade along the coast. There are a few short climbs here, but nothing too strenuous. You can follow the pavement up to Smart City, where kids can cycle endless circles around the fountain. For older and more adventurous children, you can continue following the pavement along the road in Smart City towards Kalkara, and follow Triq Santu Rokku along the coast, past the Malta Film Studios and Fort Rinella until reaching Fort Ricasoli. Fort Rinella could make for a nice stop, or else explore the little chapel near the entrance of the film studios, along with some abandoned tunnels in the fortifications nearby. Following the road up until Rinella bay is also an option, but don’t forget that zooming down a hill means you will have to conquer that same hill on your way back up! However, you can always dismount and push your bicycle to overcome short steep climbs.

Triq id-Dahar, Mellieha (3 km both ways)

The road between the Red Tower, perched high on top of the Foresta 2000 nature reserve, and the Radar Station on the western edge of the Marfa peninsula offers an immensely scenic ride. The road is relatively flat and usually sees very few cars passing by, making it a perfect place to practice cycling, with a picture perfect view! This trip up north can easily be turned into a full day activity by having a stroll through Foresta and/or neighbouring Għadira nature reserves, or some seaside fun at the beach.

How can I choose the right Sports for my children?

Fabio Spiteri – Triathlon coach (swim, bike, run).
Fabio broke the national record for double Ironman and he was the first Maltese to finish a Triple Ironman. His future plans are to compete in Quintuple Ironman and the Deca Ironman.

The children’s future depends on our responsibilities as they are the roots of the active world following our steps. In Malta, the situation is desperate seeing so many overweight kids and parents doing nothing about it . So it all goes down to education at school. Me, being an athlete and coach for so many years, have also had the opportunity to work with kids. I strongly disagree with parents who send their kids to only one nursery just because their dad is interested in a particular sport. I believe in physical literacy where it is a journey upon which children and youth, and everyone, develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they need to enable them to participate in a wide variety of activities. Besides it is a lot more fun when kids or even ourselves are developing different skills and being more active in life. It will also help them grow into fine-tuned athletes.

Kids need to learn different skills such as agility, catching , coordination , dynamic balance , hopping , jumping , kicking , running , static balance , striking and throwing. These skills definitely cannot be fully developed if the kid joins just one sport / nursery. Ideally we expose the kid to 3 or 4 different sports. Then, by the age of 12 – 13, the youth can specialise in one sport , as by then he / she  definitely would have known each particular strength and weakness.

The earlier a child starts getting in shape, the more he / she’ll reduce her risk of numerous illnesses. Here are some of the benefits that physical activity offers your child:

It strengthens the heart

It helps keep arteries and veins clear

It strengthens the lungs

It reduces blood sugar levels

It controls weight

It strengthens bones

It helps prevent cancer

It regulates blood pressure

It improves energy levels

It enhances emotional well-being 

As they grow into teenagers, from experience, and this is a sad  reality , 15 – 16 year old will be exposed to cigarettes / soft drugs from friends or out of curiosity . It is here where he / she will require a strong character and I do believe that in such situations it is not the books and study that will push them away from drugs but the discipline motivation and hard work they have achieved throughout their active sport life! Sports do build strong characters!!

In a few words, encouraging active children will not only fight obesity, but also build a strong character and shape a disciplined person who will be ready to fight problems in and off the court!!  Recently after a cross-fit session at 11 am pure daylight, I walked out of the gym and saw a young guy overdosing on a bench and waited next to him until ambulance arrived. It was a shock for me because I could see the contrast of me being healthy and full of positive energy and the guy fighting for his life because of his choice in reverting to drugs and destroying his character, his body and his mind . Sports for me is a way of life . Its a healthy chain. You meet healthy people , train in a group , non-smoking environment and all achieving or trying to achieve the best version of themselves .

Why should I play with my children?

Dr Nigel Camilleri – Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist and father of 4

There is a widespread belief in our society where emphasis is on school achievement, economic success and work, that the time parents and children spend playing together is frivolous and unproductive. This conviction is reflected in comments such as “she is only playing around”, “why bother send them to preschool?”, “all they do is play”.

We as parents should try to break loose from these premeditated concepts, because time parents spend playing with their children reaps benefits in many ways. It provides them opportunities to learn who they are, what they can do and how to relate to the world around them. Play encourages creativity, when I say play, I do not mean spending time in front of TV or a Tablet computer, however playing with some good old toys. Unfortunately, when a parent does not play with their child, creative play gradually disappears within that child, as they are no longer stimulated to be imaginative.

Play enables children to enhance warm relationships and build experiences between family members, this creates a bank of positive feelings which can be drawn upon in time of conflict. Very importantly through play children learn how to problems-solve, improve their vocabulary to communicate their thoughts and feelings and learn how to interact socially through turn- taking and sharing. Moreover play promotes feelings of self-worth and competence which lead to a positive self-esteem.

How should we play with our children?

It is advised that we spend around 15 minutes a day playing with each of our children. Some parents try to structure their children’s play by giving lessons on what to do. Unfortunately this results in an emphasis on the product of play, and in a string of commands which is unrewarding for both the adult and child. The first step in playing with your children is to follow their lead, ideas and imagination, rather than imposing your own. Do not try to teach them anything, instead imitate their actions and do what they ask you to do, you will soon notice that when you do this, your child will become more involved and interested in playing.

It is important to play at a pace which suits your child. Younger children tend to play with the same object in the same way time and time again. The reason is that children need to rehearse and practise an activity so as to feel comfortable and confident about their abilities. If they are pushed into a new activity they will feel incompetent and get frustrated, then give up. Be sensitive to your children’s cues, presenting a toy to your child which is too advanced for their age, is very likely to be met by resistance, and frustration. Also try to avoid power struggles. Toddlers and preschoolers are too young to understand the rules of board games, they will only start to grasp these around the age of 7 or 8. When playing a board game try follow the lead of your child, rather than focus too much on playing by the rules and teaching them to be good losers, many aspects in life will teach them this. The basic importance of play is to foster children’s feelings of competence and provide them with opportunities of independence and some level of control.

Praise in Play

Use praise freely during play, around every 2 to 3 minutes to encourage your child’s ideas and creativity. Try not to judge or contradict your children when playing with them. Creating and experimenting are what’s important, not the finished product. However for praise to work it must be realistic, rather than the same repetitive stock phrase we use with our children for all occasions, such as “that is great” and ”you are great”. In order for praise be effective and not to encourage the development of a child who believes they are the best in everything is when praise is measured with reality, rather than saying “your painting is amazing”, which means that when they will grow up and find out that they are not the next Leonardo Da Vinci, it will leave them with feelings of incompetence and of failure. However saying “I like the way you coloured inside the line” , or “the red of the giraffe looks good” is also praise and will encourage your child to continue drawing in future and would also constructively teach the child that coloring within the lines is something to do.

Occasionally parents have a tendency to ask a string of questions while playing “what animal is that?”, “what colour is that”, “”what shape is that?”, this too often has the reverse effect, causing them to become defensive, silent and reluctant to talk. Parents can show interest in their children’s play by simply describing and providing supportive comments about what they are doing. The approach actively encourages language development. For example a parent may say “you are putting the car in the garage” and so forth.

Encourage your child’s independent problem-solving. Sometimes parents are trying to be too helpful, for example a boy is trying to put a lid to close a box and his mother responds by saying “here let me do it for you”. The child then gets upset because he did not really want the mother to take over and do it for him. Or a child who gets frustrated cause his father finishes off the last pieces of his puzzle. Giving too much help or taking over the activity decreases a child’s sense of accomplishment and self-esteem, and fosters dependence on adults.  During play parents could encourage their children to think, solve problems and play independently, instead of doing the puzzle for them, suggesting they do them together.

Tangible rewards can be used to reinforce the achievement of a specific goal. For example “every time the brothers play together they end up fighting”. So the goal is to reduce fighting and increase sharing between them whilst playing quietly. To achieve this a tangible reward program with both children needs to be set up. This can be used to motivate them to share and play quietly. The rewards need to be discussed with the children beforehand and the list of treats written down. The rewards can be inexpensive material items such as markers, cards, a special lunch treat or new toy (cost limited). However rewards can also include, special privileges at home such as: choosing a dessert for the family, having a friend over to play or special outdoor activities such as going for a picnic or to the swings or special time with parents such as extra bedtime story, baking cookies, doing a puzzle together. Tangible rewards will only work as long as you choose effective rewards, make the program fun and simple, monitor the charts closely, immediately follow through with rewards when they deserve them, revise and change the reward program over time, be consistent with setting limits on behaviours.

It is important for parents to value play and set time aside to spend with their children. Playing with your children fosters positive self-esteem, improves their social, emotional and cognitive development. Play also encourages children to try out their imagination, explore the impossible, test out new ideas, make mistakes, solve problems and gain confidence in their own thoughts and ideas. Good play can reduce their feelings of anger, fear and inadequacy, and provide feelings of being in control and success. Playing with your children enables each child to develop into a unique, creative and self- confident individual. Play is one of the most important foundations for successful parenting.

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