Learn to Ride
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.