Month: October 2018
Learning to ride a bike is a right of passage for many children and provides them the freedom to explore on their own. As our children became confident on their balance bikes we were quickly able to eliminate the need for a stroller on longer and longer distances. Most importantly, kids just think riding a bike is A LOT of fun. So let’s get started on how to learn to ride a bike!
Start by buying a helmet.
Before we can ride, we need a helmet – this is afterall a blog about child brain development. When I was 9 years old I went out for “one ride” without my helmet and crashed head first into the trailer of a truck, which required 10 stitches and has left me with a visible scar on my forehead nearly 30 years later.
Introduce a helmet BEFORE they start riding so they won’t know any different. They will be excited to wear it and won’t find the helmet a distraction as they start to learn to ride. We introduced our helmets to our kids around a year old when they began riding in our Burley Bike trailer; however, you can just as easily put the helmet on your child around the house. In fact our daughter liked her helmet so much she wore it around the house mimicking her older brother for a couple months before she really began consistently riding her balance bike.
Both of our children wear the Giro SCAMP MIPS helmet. There are many children’s helmets on the market; however, we love the Roc Loc system which ensures a snug fit. This is a small adjustment wheel on the back of the helmet that allows you to fit the helmet to the curvature of each child’s head. As somebody who fitted helmets on kids for years while working at a bike shop, please DO NOT get any helmet that uses different size “pads” to try to attempt to create the right fit. The fit will never be the same and is not adjustable as your child grows. The MIPS version is $20 more than the standard and includes Giro’s Multi-Directional Impact Protection System. The idea is to provide further protection for the child in a crash, though admittedly sometimes this system pulls the kids hair when taking off their helmet. That said, we looked at a lot of helmets and felt there was no compromise.
For a long time running I sold the most helmets at Deerfield Cyclery as parents took one look at my scar and knew they didn’t want the same to happen to their own child. Please use common sense and buy your child a quality helmet that they love to wear. If you don’t know how to fit the hemet, visit your local bicycle shop. An improperly fit helmet is nearly as worthless as none at all. Lastly, set a good example and wear one yourself!
Ensure your child is physically and mentally ready.
As we discussed in Bicycle Riding Made Easy, your child needs to have developed enough coordination and strength required to get started on a bike. Our daughter expressed interest in balance bikes from the time she could walk (anything my brother can do, I can do) and at 14 months I let her give it a try. It was too early, she was frustrated, and she had a meltdown. At 15 months she could walk a bit with the bike, but it wasn’t until she was 18-19 months that things really started to click for her. While you can start earlier than 1.5 years, I’d keep that as a reasonable target to when you might be able to begin. Regardless of whether you start at 2 or 10 make sure that you remember that you are looking for high frequency and low intensity and duration when starting out. This will ensure that your child is able to get comfortable with the concepts of balance on a bike without getting frustrated.
Start with a balance bike
Assuming your child is comfortable with their helmet and physically and mentally ready, it’s time to introduce them to the balance bike or if they are older than 3, a pedal bike that you have taken the pedals off of. The younger they are, the more you want to just get them comfortable with the bike before even getting them on the bike. For example, if the bike has a bell, let your child start by playing with the bell. Initially this may seem frustrating because they will be more into the bell than anything else, but over time they will learn that the bike itself is actually more fun than the bell.
Next introduce them to standing over the seat while holding the handle bar. If they can hold the bike upright you can walk in front of them and see if you can get them to “waddle walk” forward with the bike. The next time period is a critical time of learning, but is most often where I think parents give up and say my kid doesn’t like the balance bike or it didn’t work. It may take dozens of bike rides over weeks to get your child to start moving forward at more than a snail’s pace. Be patient and mindful for your child. Stop BEFORE they start to get frustrated. I am often guilty of over extending the kids because they say they want more, without internalizing that they are bordering on a meltdown. As they gain confidence they will want to keep riding; however, we found that especially with young kids, they expend a lot of energy and then may get upset. I would recommend trying to get your child on the bike nearly every day even if only for 5-10 minutes while they are going through this initial phase.
When your child is able to start moving about as fast as they can walk, raise their seat again until their heels are just barely off the ground when standing over the seat. This will encourage your child to stride on the bike. With a balance bike, initially it is NOT important to introduce a slight incline, which is often recommended with a pedal bike. My recommendation is to introduce inclines once they move from waddling to walking / striding on the bike.
Before you know it they’ll be moving practically as fast as somebody pedaling a bike of similar size. In our last post we talked about our favorite balance bike, the Woom 1. If you have it or a similar balance bike with a hand break this is good time to start introducing it.
As they grow with confidence and ability to stop, let them start doing more and more challenging terrain, hills, and bike parks. Seriously, kids can rip it on balance bikes!
Learning to ride a pedal bike is quick and easy if you have already mastered balance. It took our son about 5 minutes to get the hang of pedals and about 15 minutes before he was pedaling around a parking lot on a regular pedal bike.
As when I was growing up, most people still learn to ride on a tricycle or with training wheels and then attempt to transition to two wheels. The problem with this, as we discussed in Bicycle Riding Made Easy, is that the ability to successfully ride a two-wheeled bicycle hinges completely on the ability to balance oneself. Neither tricycles nor training wheels teach this skill, which is why so many people struggle to learn to ride.
If your child is starting to learn to ride on a pedal bike without having ridden a balance bike, take the pedals off, follow the instructions above in Start with a Balance Bike, and only move onto a pedal bike once they have mastered balance and striding. They should be able to coast down a long hill, pick up their legs, have no trouble balancing, and control stopping with their feet or a hand brake. Also consider our thoughts in Our Favorite Kids Bikes and why we recommend a pedal bike without a coaster brake.
Please do not go from a balance bike to a bike with training wheels. We see this all too often. Even Giro’s website talks about how the Scamp helmet will grow with a child from balance bikes to training wheels. The ENTIRE point of a balance bike is to teach balance, thus eliminating training wheels, which doesn’t teach balance.
Bike Walk Through
With balance mastered, the critical part of learning to ride a pedal bike is the pedaling. Like with the balance bike, before you start trying to ride, walk them through the bike. Start by showing your child the pedals and explain to them how it is different from their balance bike. Lift up the bike by the seat with your left hand, use your right hand to pedal the bike and get the rear wheel spinning, then transition your right hand to the rear (right) hand brake and stop the wheel. While doing this you should be able to explain how pedaling makes the bike move and the hand brake stops the bike.
Next, have your child sit on the bike and ensure that the seat is adjusted properly. Their heels should just slightly come off the ground while standing over the seat. This should be the same position they were comfortable striding in with a balance bike.
With your child sitting on the seat, lift the rear wheel off the ground and have them begin to pedal the bike, then have them use the right hand brake to stop the bike. If you have removed the coaster brake, do the same thing, but have your child pedal backwards. Explain how the bike only moves forward if they are pedaling forwards. Repeat until you think your child has grasped the pedaling motion.
Time to ride
They know how to balance, they know how to pedal, it is time to put it all together! Find a parking lot or open space that has a very slight downward incline. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t want a hill. The purpose of the incline is to maintain forward momentum, which makes it easier to balance, while the child is trying to master combining balance with pedaling.
Stand behind your child with your hand under the seat of the bike. Ask them to place their feet on the pedals and begin pedaling. Your purpose is NOT to provide the balance for them, but rather to guide the bike. Guiding the bike means adding forward momentum if they are not moving fast enough to balance, slow them if they become distracted, and help keep them from truly toppling. Falling is okay as it encourages learning, but mitigating your child getting hurt will keep morale up. Remember to call it quits BEFORE your child starts getting tired.
You are looking to get your child comfortable with the process of pedaling. They will likely master this going down the hill, then try to turn and lose momentum because they aren’t pedaling fast enough. This is 100% okay. Repeat starting at the top of the incline until they are comfortable pedaling fast enough to overcome the hill.
If they have mastered balance before trying to pedal you should be able to teach your child this stage within a few days if not faster. Again, I would recommend trying to find several consecutive days when you can get out for 10-15 minutes and practice.
Now enjoy the magic of exploration!
Check out our YouTube playlist more how to videos in the coming weeks.
One warning. Your kids may become obsessed. Our son received his pedal bike from Santa, which means that we were out in sleet and snow as he insisted on riding every day. 🙂
My first high school job was working at a bicycle shop. When you work at a bike shop you start by building the kids bikes and at the time that meant 16” bikes with training wheels. Like many people, I thought that was the only way kids learned to ride a bike.
Shockingly, balance bikes have actually been around since the 18th century! Somewhere between my working at a bike shop and present day, balance bikes became a thing. Once I learned why using a balance bike is the best way to learn to ride a bicycle, we decided it was the route to choose for teaching our kids.
The next question of course is, which balance bike to choose? There are a ton of options out there now, which is great because it means that more and more people are realizing the benefits of starting on a balance bike over a tricycle. It can be a bit overwhelming, however, when trying to figure out which bike to pick for your child.
There are a number of key factors that go into our top choice. Before getting into those details I’ll explain how we started out. We knew we wanted to start with a balance bike, so when our son was 20 months old we got him a basic Strider Balance Bike. We didn’t really research bikes, just got him the one they had at the sporting goods store. It did the trick and over the first few months he got more and more comfortable on it. He loved riding so much that it didn’t take long for him to start wearing the bottoms off of his sneakers as he had to use his feet to brake. That’s when we decided we needed to look into some other options.
We initially promised that he could get a pedal bike, but realized that he was still too short to ride a pedal bike that didn’t have trainings wheels. After a bit of research we learned about Woom bikes, which met most of the criteria we were looking for, essentially a well designed balance bike that somebody could grow with. Despite a slightly higher price, we decided to take a shot and ordered the Woom 1 online.
As somebody who worked at a bike shop I instantly appreciated the thought and craftsmanship that went into the design of this bike when it arrived. It was designed with the young child in mind, a 1.5 year old can stand over the seat, lightweight aluminum, air tires for a smoother ride over multiple surfaces, a hand brake to start to teach him how to stop, a steering limiter to help keep the young rider from over steering, and of course his favorite aspect – the bell.
When our son was ready to progress to the Woom 2, their 14” pedal bike we continued to love their philosophy and design. Unfortunately the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission essentially requires bikes with a seat post less than 22” to have a coaster brake (a foot brake that activates when you pedal backwards.) Thankfully Woom and a few others offer a cheap free-wheel kit for their pedal bikes so that you can remove the back-pedal brake. This may not seem like a big deal but being able to remove that back-pedal brake so your child can just use their hand brakes and can actually back pedal normally is really wonderful. It teaches them the same skill they will learn as the grow into bigger bikes.
We have absolutely gotten more than our money’s worth with as much as our kids ride their bikes! If you’re hesitant on the initial cost then I’d recommend starting with a less expensive and more basic balance bike. Either get one used or buy something more simple like the basic Strider bike. But if you’re child is going to really ride a good amount then springing for the Woom 1 is absolutely worth it. They also hold their value pretty well and are easy to sell once you’re done with them. If your child is a bit older and/or taller, you can also consider just buying the Woom 2 from the start and removing the pedals at the beginning to turn it into a balance bike until your child is ready to have pedals added to the equation.
We can’t recommend Woom bikes, enough. They’re well-made with superior quality materials that hold up to heavy use by kids and are designed to facilitate the process of learning how to ride. There really are lots of options out there, however, so another great resource for sorting through the different options is the website twowheelingtots.com. They provide reviews of many different brands and give comparisons of different brands.
There are many options out there at various price-points but in the end, no matter what your budget is, we’ll always argue that your money is better spent on a balance bike over a tricycle. Get them on two wheels from the start and they’ll develop their balance early on and make the transition to a pedal-bike with ease.
Stay tuned next week for our tips on how to teach your child to ride!
Last month, in another one of our posts looking at the science behind child brain development, we talked about the principle of synergy. Just to recap quickly, synergy is the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts. It tells us that the functions of the human brain develop together influencing and supporting each other along the way. The synergistic nature of brain development is clearly visible when looking at the function of mobility at every stage in the process of its development. This week we’re taking a look at a very sophisticated and complex physical ability that is a sort of rite of passage for children all over the world… riding a two-wheeled bicycle!
Riding a bike is a great example of synergy in action. You use your vision to see where you are going. You use the auditory (inner ear) and tactile functions to orient yourself in space and to balance yourself. You use your hands to steer and, if the bicycle uses hand brakes, to stop. Like all of the major stages in the development of mobility (tummy crawling, creeping, walking, and running) riding a two-wheeled bicycle requires good coordination of movement and a certain degree of strength. But what really separates riding a bike from those milestone stages is the critical importance of the element of balance. In the end, the ability to successfully ride a two-wheeled bicycle hinges completely on the ability to balance oneself.
And this is where most of the mistakes are made and why many children struggle with learning to ride a two-wheeled bicycle. Most children are introduced to bicycle riding by learning how to ride on a bicycle with training wheels… and therein lies the problem. When you ride a bicycle with training wheels there is absolutely no need (zero, nada, niente!) to balance yourself because the training wheels prevent you from falling over, thus eliminating the natural consequence of not keeping your balance. You simply cannot fall down and hurt yourself. That’s a good thing if the objective is to not hurt yourself. But it’s a really bad thing if the objective is to learn how to ride a two-wheeled bicycle. This brings us back to the third law that governs brain development, “where there is a need, there is a facility”. By using training wheels we remove any need to use balance while riding the bicycle. Sure, the child has the illusion of riding a bicycle but that’s all it is, an illusion. Since the ability to successfully ride a two-wheeled bicycle hinges completely on the ability to balance oneself, that’s obviously counter productive and therefore a bad idea.
So, what to do? Well, the first thing you want to do is make sure that your little one is developing mobility correctly. Remember, we believe deeply that athletic talent is every child’s birthright. All of the good coordination and strength required to get started on a bike is easily acquired through the development of good mobility, which is to say first learning how to tummy crawl, then creep, and then walk and run. Along the way your child will be developing a decent sense of balance.
Then, as you approach the age at which you want to introduce the joy of riding a bicycle, you can get your little one ready by increasing the amount of time you spend on balance activities. Spend more time on the swings at the park, the merry-go-round, the see-saw, the sliding board. Learn how roll like a log, do somersaults (carefully), jump on a trampoline (even more carefully!). All of these activities develop your child’s vestibular system, the part of the brain that receives information about body position in space, processes that information, and then initiates a motor response to maintain balance and position in space.
Now, the only question that remains is what kind of bicycle should we use to actually learn how to ride? That’s a question we and some colleagues asked ourselves about 35 years ago while working with children with special needs. We realized that the way children were usually introduced to bicycle riding was just not going to cut it. Knowing that balance was key we analyzed what skills were needed to be able to ride a two wheeler and came up with the idea of hacking a bike that the kids might already have. We lowered the seat, cutting the shaft with a hacksaw if necessary, so that they could sit on the bike with their feet touching the ground. We removed the pedals. That put the focus on learning how to balance.
Then we began a gradual process of teaching them how to balance themselves on the bicycle as they coasted down a slight hill with their feet lifted slightly off the ground. If they started to tilt over they quickly learned to put their feet down to brake the bike and bring it to a stop. Bit by bit, as they gained more confidence in their ability to coast while balancing themselves we encouraged them to keep their feet up off the ground for longer distances.
Once they could navigate a decent hill without ever touching their feet to the ground, we replaced the pedals and then worked on learning how to pedal. Bingo! Suddenly, lots of our children who couldn’t ride before were learning how to do it successfully. Little did we know that we had invented the balance bike! Oh, if we had only had the minds of a smart businessman back then!!!
So, that is the key. You must have the right equipment in order to be successful. The right equipment to easily start learning how to ride a two-wheeled bicycle is a balance bike. So, if your little one is now at the stage where learning how to ride a bicycle is something of interest, stay tuned for our next post. We’ll give our recommendations for the best bikes to take your child through the whole process from learning how to balance, to pedaling, and then to riding with complete confidence.