Simple Ideas with Profound Impact
It all Starts with Balance – Bicycle Riding Made Easy
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.