When I went to Central Washington University, PE teaching majors took an alternative activities class to learn to ride unicycles, juggle, use diabolo, archery, lacrosse and other non-traditional PE activities. One of our required tasks was to be able to ride the length of the pavilion without holding on to the wall or spotters. I had one quarter to acquire this skill and was provided the unicycle and a brief instruction of how to mount and ride.
Luckily our professor, Dr. Steve Jefferies, provided extra learning opportunities at a local unicycle club held at an elementary school in Ellensburg, WA. The first thing I learned there was humility. Students rode past me for hours as I clung to the wall. I swallowed my pride as I listened to the suggestions of little kids on what I was doing wrong and eventually was successful.
My first year teaching, I found a dozen unicycles in the gym closet. It was difficult to teach 28 kids without having enough for everyone so I bought several more with my budget and Frankensteined a few of the older ones back together. It turns out that the previous PE teacher, Wayne Christensen, had unicycles spread all over Yelm elementary schools for his circus arts club named DARTS that ran from 1983 through 1993. To make riding more accessible, I pooled up the unicycles from all the schools and tightened a few more bolts, replaced some seats, pedals and tires. I also found out that a dad of one of my students is an excellent welder and was able to revive 24 more unicycles.
To make our budget stretch further and to give other students this unique opportunity, we share the unicycles between schools in our district. As of 2011, we have 59 unicycles including three 6-foot giraffes. This does not include the 30+ students that have their own.
So why ride unicycles? The first and most important reason is that it is fun. It's a different kind of feeling being up on one wheel, in control. There are other good reasons, though:
You are always pedaling a unicycle, so riding is a good workout. When you ride a bike, you spend a lot of time coasting which is like taking a break. Riding is a low-impact activity, so it is good for people with legs wrecked by jogging.
Cruising speed is 8-9 miles an hour on a standard 24" unicycle, fast enough to use an alternative to a car for local trips. There are a couple people that rode the Seattle to Portland race on 36 inch wheels and 124 people from 14 countries that braved the 5 day event, Ride the Lobster, in Nova Scotia that spanned 800km.
Storage and cost
I can fit up to 27 unicycles in the back of my truck at a time. Try to do that with 27 bikes. Unicycles cost less and seem to have half the parts to be replaced.
You never run out of unicycling challenges. After you learn to ride forward, you can learn to ride backwards. When you have done that, you can learn to ride one-footed. You can enjoy what you know, but you can always learn more. Unicycle hockey and basketball teams compete locally and internationally. Trials and freestyle riding are additional avenues to being creative and push rider's abilities. Self esteem soars for students that learn higher levels of unicycling.
Students cheer, support (spot), give information on how to correct others and explain the tricks behind the skills. One of the greatest pleasures I ever received teaching was seeing a “skater” type student that isn't into team sports but loves a challenge when it comes to balance with a splash of risk. It took me 6 hours of practice to get six feet off the wall. I saw a kid with a blue haired Mohawk master that in half an hour. After that day, he never missed a recess showing others how to get better.
Furthermore, recent scientific research demonstrated that unicyclists improve their concentration ability, balance and motor coordination. This activity plays an important role on the physical and mental development.
After this research, the Japanese Educational Department officially recognized this discipline: they integrate it in their school program. Today, there is over a million unicyclists in Japan. Also, an International Unicycling Federation was founded in Japan, June 1st, 1982 and further to the elaboration of a structure and a regulation for this sport, the Federation sanctioned the first World Unicycling Championship which took place in Syracuse, New York, in 1984.
The numbers of unicyclists are growing all over the world and especially in the northwest. The PACERS are amazing elementary school performers based out of Spanaway, WA. The most McKenna Elementary students we have had in a parade was 49 for a Christmas in the park in 2009. Every year in spring, the Panther Pride Unicycle Team puts on a clinic for all skill levels at North Bend Elementary. Last year there were at least 150 participants learning new skills all day long.
To learn more about unicycling, go to www.unicyclist.com where they have 25,000+ members participating in forums to discuss all things unicycle. Unicycle: It's not just for circus any more.