Certainly, all children are unique, and what works for one may not work for another, but in my experience there’s a few very reliable methods you can use to get most children riding a bike quickly and easily. For what it’s worth – these aren’t just my words. These are techniques that are used the world over, by professionals, and also just by people like you and me. However, from first-hand experience they worked for us, and many of our friends.
1. Get a balance bike/runbike
If you want your child to learn how to pedal, get a trike/car/bike-with-training-wheels* (if you really, really must). But, in reality, it generally only takes minutes for a kid to learn how to pedal. The much trickier thing to learn is how to balance.
A balance bike allows a child to, at a pace that suits them, learn balance. Now balance isn’t just keeping the bike upright. It’s also vital in turning the bike. In fact, leaning provides a greater degree of the turn action than moving the handlebars.
Depending upon your child’s height and age, I’ve seen kids not even two years old with quite good balance on a runbike. For us, it was a little past our girls’ third birthday before it started to ‘click’ for them.
For a balance bike to be of appropriate size, your child needs to be able to be seated and have both feet flat on the floor. This allows them to feel confident in not falling over.
I modified this one by flipping the frame upside-down, to drop the saddle by about 10cm. In the end, this probably didn’t really get her riding it (balanced on it) any faster, but it did mean she could ‘ride’ it around the house much earlier, and build confidence. Thankfully nowadays, there’s many great models of balance bike available which have a low saddle height.
I’d recommend you start out with it within the house… just like any other of their playthings, before progressing outside. Don’t make a big deal about it – just treat it like any other of their belongings. At first, they won’t be going quickly, so they’re unlikely to cause any damage.
Most kids will progress through the following stages (more or less) :
- walking with the bike underneath them – not even in the saddle
- walking, seated on the bike
- a little bit of rolling forward – perhaps still ‘walking’ along
- one foot shuffles
- two foot walk/run/shuffles, with semi-balancing (they can graduate to outside at this point – and that’s when I’d start with the helmet, if you hadn’t already)
- balanced coasting with/without two-feet-at-the-same-time propulsion
There’s a few other great things about balance bikes worth sharing before I move on. They allow your child to move at adult walking pace, or faster, so they really get a sense of self-worth and independence. Whenever we walk anywhere, she was on her balance bike. Being purely selfish, you never got the ‘slow dowwwwn… you’re walking toooo faaaaaast‘. Also, they’re quite light, so most kids can handle them up gutters/steps/whatever.
Even though our (then) 4 yr old daugther could ride a pedal bike, her RunBike was still her most often-used bike until she was over 5. And she’s not alone – here’s a few others from her childcare.
There used to be a great video on YouTube which showed the progression I outlined above. That was, unfortunately, removed from YouTube, so I made my own.
Now if you haven’t gone the runbike route, don’t dispair. You still don’t need to go for training wheels.
2. Convert their pedal bike into a balance bike (even if only briefly)
Whether or not you kid has had a balance bike, the same principles still apply. In fact, a mate regularly uses this technique for adults (able bodied and those with special needs) to teach them how to ride.
So, what am I on about? Remove the pedals, and drop the saddle so that they can place their feet flat footed on the ground*. They can then go though the steps above. Depending upon the child (or adult for that matter), those steps could take weeks, days, hours or even for some, only minutes. If they seem to have balance and are comfortable, try with the pedals back on. (It IS good if your child has had some pedaling practice on ‘something’, and it doesn’t really matter what it is – trike/bike/whatever, so they understand the motion and their feet don’t fall off the pedals).
My daugther’s first ride on a pedaled bike (the day before her fourth birthday) was with the pedals removed. It helped build confidence, and familiarity, with a different, much heavier bike. Only once she was comfortable did I put the pedals back on. (About 20 mins).
I, literally, picked this bike up from the side of the road.
3. Pick your venue (and, potentially, your teacher)
When moving to outdoors, it’s important to allow kids to progress… but to progress slowly. So… the perfect venue is somewhere that has grassed slopes, and paths… with a variation of gradients, and even some runoff so they can’t build up too much speed. Some obstacles are OK – because they need to learn to avoid things (and best to learn that the hard way at low speeds, early on, should it come to it).
The teacher? Often, kids learn much more effectively from someone other than their parents. Like it or lump it – they often have us wrapped around their finger and/or are all too quick to go into whinge/complain mode (or is that just ours?) So, uncle/aunt/neighbour/friend/whoever. But someone your child can trust. (Similar to learning to swim as well).
4. Be an example
Kids learn by mimicry and following example. If you want your kid to want to learn how to ride… ride yourself. And let them see you leaving. Or coming home. Or ride with them. Demonstrate the behaviours you want to see.
I firmly believe the main reason my daughters have such great balance on their bike(s), and particularly at very low speeds, is because of the amount of time they’ve spent on them. Another reason the balance bike works so well is it helps allow this. Kids can just grab them and ride them. They’re easy to throw in the car, or the pram, or even take on your bike with you. So, every time you walk somewhere, it’s an opportunity for them to ride. Or… as said above, be an example, and ride with them.
So… what’s so bad about training wheels?
Training wheels transform a bicycle. It’s no longer a bike. It’s a machine you can pedal along (sometimes, when the rear wheel doesn’t get ‘marooned’ and spin in the air because the training wheels are up on some uneven ground). Kids sit differently on them. They learn differently on them. But, most-importantly, they turn differently on them. And everything they learn, is counter-productive to being able to balance. In fact, I’ve seen much worse spills from a bike with training wheels than I’ve seen on a runbike. Kids ‘trust’ the training wheels. And, naturally, lean against them. So, when the bike does inevitably flip over, the kid will fall harder, and also has no reflexes to counter it or react otherwise.
Riding on training wheels is much better than sitting in front of the TV, but are best avoided if possible
If the bike you have won’t allow you to put your saddle down far enough to put their feet on the ground, then you are a bit stuck until they grow. Or… until you can procure a bike (runbike/pedaled bike/otherwise) from somewhere which allows it. You may only have to borrow it for a couple of weeks.
We get a lot of kids in our local park. Many I know by name, but plenty of others I just know from seeing them around. I have quite a good knowledge of who has learned to ride via the above techniques, and who have learned from training wheels. (Well, apart from the obvious ones who are still on training wheels – including those who have now progressed through three sizes of bike – still on training wheels).
The kids who have learned from training wheels have great difficulty riding slowly (another very important safety skill). Now sure, I reckon they’ll get this in time. But because they haven’t learned balance early, it will take longer. And, (just like them hot-housing tennis players from age 4) I think it’s best to start on these balance reflexes as early as possible.
So summing up
Get a balance bike. Or… temporarily transform a normal bike into a balance bike until they’re confidently balancing. And it works for adults just as well as for kids, if you know someone who never learned to ride.
*Unfortunately, because training wheels have been so endemic for so long, many bike manufacturers build kids bikes with a geometry that’s set up for them. So… upright, with appropriate leg extension for the pedals, but not allowing the kid to put their feet on the ground. (After all, they don’t need to do that – the training wheels will keep them up).