Simple Ideas with Profound Impact
Learn to Ride a Bike
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. 🙂