Here are 7 steps that you can use to teach a child to ride a bike. This post explains step-by-step how to teach a child to ride a bike, based on our experience of teaching our own kids and grandkids. We include a short video illustrating the most crucial points. Some of the tips here may surprise you, as they are contrary to conventional thinking on the subject. We learned the hard way – by getting it wrong first! You will be giving your child something very special: being able to ride a bike will open up a door to fun and healthy activities throughout your child’s life. The physical benefits of cycling are so enormous that you are likely also giving your children the gift of a longer life when you teach them to ride bikes.
Use the Right Equipment to Teach a Child to Ride a Bike
Many parents see some kind of bike as essential equipment for their kids, but end up buying something that is not helpful. It is wise to be careful about what you buy – the wrong bike can do more harm than good. Basically, there are four possibilities:
- Trikes (tricycles);
- Balance bikes (also known as glider bikes or strider bikes);
- Bikes with training wheels; and
- Regular bikes.
This may surprise you, but we only recommend no. 2 and no. 4. We don’t particularly recommend trikes, and we strongly recommend against bikes with training wheels.
The Problem with Trikes
Trikes tend to be slow, and they are are not as stable as you might think. They can be very hard to turn, and the parents tend to do most of the work. This is why many come equipped with a pushing handle – like a shopping cart with a saddle! This means your child is getting very little exercise, and not learning much, if anything. And almost all trikes are quite slow. So your kids won’t even be able to keep up with you a Sunday morning walk on the boardwalk – not under their own power, anyway. And they won’t have much fun, either, as they battle to keep up.
More importantly, trikes do not help your child learn to ride a bike. They teach them to sit on something while being pushed – which is not really a useful life skill. They most likelly already got this covered during their years in a stroller!
Why Balance Bikes are Helpful for Kids Learning to Ride a Bike
By contrast, balance bikes (also called strider bikes) go a lot faster, and are much easier to turn. Most importantly, they achieve the most essential part of the learning-to-ride-a-bike process – they teach balance. This can be a difficult skill for kids to learn, initially. But once they get it, it is transferable to many other essential life skills, including, of course, riding a bike!
Video Contrasting Trikes and Balance Bikes
Check out this video, which very effectively shows how much better balance/strider bikes are than trikes:
You can even buy strider bikes that transition your baby gently onto a balance bike. These have a double wheel on the front, so that the little balance bike is stable. However, he or she can learn to push the bike along with their feet. As soon as they grow out of this one, they are ready for their first real balance bike.
What’s Wrong with Training Wheels?
Most people buy their kids bikes with training wheels without thinking twice about it. I did it myself, many years ago. At least three times! However, turns out that training wheels can actually do a whole lot of damage. I have had more time now to observe just how this happens.
We have sometimes been asked to help a child who was having difficulty learning to ride a bike. Most recently, it was two of our grandchildren – Connor, who was 5 at the time, and Kara, who was then 8. Both had been riding with training wheels for years. As with all kids who have spent significant time on training wheels, four negative things had happened.
Negative Effects of Training Wheels on Kid’s Bikes
We noticed that training wheels had had the following four negative effects on our grandkids.
#1: Failure to Learn the Most Essential Skill for Riding a Bike
The two kids had not learned anything about balancing. This is the most essential skill for riding a bike. A bike with training wheels gives a child no practice in balancing, so they don’t learn how to do it.
#2: Acquiring Bad Habits
The kids had acquired bad habits that were actively preventing them from learning to ride a real bike. These included persistently leaning heavily to one side. This was because they were used to leaning on one of the training wheels, which are, of course, very stable. This habit made it extremely hard for them to learn to balance.The essence of balancing is maintaining a steady upright position, which is the exact opposite of leaning to one side.
They had even got into the habit of occasionally removing their hands from the grips. Why not, when you are going to be held upright by training wheels? Except of course when you are a beginner on a real bike, this is probably going to cause you to fall.
Most alarmingly, Kara had learned to put both her hands on one side in order to turn in that direction. That is a recipe for a spectacular disaster on a real bike!
#3: Failure to Learn How to Brake Properly
The kids had gotten used to coaster brakes. These are brakes which engage when you turn the pedals backward. As a result, they had no concept of using hand brakes.
Also, they were resistant to pedaling backwards (something which is actually essential to position your pedals for efficient takeoff on a real bike).
#4: They Were Not Very Enthusiastic about Riding Bikes
Most bikes with training wheels are slow and cumbersome, and give a child no concept of the fun that comes with fast and efficient cycling. Some of these bikes are actually less efficient than walking.
It hardly encourages a child to get excited about cycling when it is faster and easier to get off their bike and walk. We really had to cajole the kids to come out and ride their bikes. This only started to shift when they began to be able to balance. Once they could balance and get up some speed, the adrenaline and fun finally kicked in!
If Possible, Start Your Child off on a Balance/Strider Bike
In short, avoid trikes and avoid bikes with training wheels. Instead, it is ideal to start your child on a balance bike. These are also called strider bikes, as kids use their feet to “stride” along, while sitting astride them. This can be as early as 18 months, if you have a child who has a good sense of balance and is relatively athletic and daring. If your child seems to not be ready yet, don’t push it. Cycling should be fun, not something they have to do.
Starting off on a Balance Bike
When your child is ready, let them sit on a balance bike with their feet on the ground. The skill of pushing themselves forwards will start slowly, and then develop as their confidence improves and they naturally learn balance. Soon, they will be having lots of fun, and even keeping up with the bigger kids!
Related Post: Complete Guide to Child Bike Seats and Trailers
Get a Decent Quality Kid’s Bike with Hand-Operated Brakes
Once your child can ride a balance bike, progress to a decent quality kid’s bike with hand-operated brakes (not coaster brakes). If your child was really good on the balance bike, the transition will be easy.
If you have not used a balance bike, don’t worry. You can just go directly to a regular bike. You will of course have to help your child, and there will be a lot of running involved! See below for more of that.
Make Sure the Bike Fits the Child
Note that once you have bought a kid’s bike, you might have to adjust it slightly to suit your child. First, set the saddle to a height that the child’s legs are close to straight in the extended position. If this means that the saddle is so high that your child has difficulty mounting and dismounting, and feels insecure, then you may have to start off with it a bit lower. The correct height will give more pedaling efficiency. However, your child has to first learn to balance while pedaling. First comes balance, then comes balance and speed!
Also, take a good look at the handlebars. Many bikes (including adult’s bikes) are sold with excessively wide handlebars. This is to accommodate all possible arm lengths. However, if the width is too wide for your child, it will make learning to ride a bike harder. You can always have a bike shop remove an inch or two from each side, for a reasonable cost.
Assume Nothing When you Teach a Child to Ride a Bike
When teaching a child to ride a bike, be aware that there are several steps in the process, and don’t assume that your child will just intuitively know any of them. This may all be new to them, and they simply won’t know. Note that all of these steps are shown in the short video. Take a look at the video, and then read the detailed instructions that follow.
Seven Steps to Teach a Child to Ride a Bike
The steps involved to teach your child to ride a bike are:
Step 1: Teach them to take responsibility for their own bike
Teach your child how to hold the handlebars and push their own bike on the way to the park or wherever you are going to practice. This builds an essential skill, as well as helping the child feel that they are in charge of their own bike.
Step 2: Teach Your Child to get on the bike
This requires the child to step over the cross bar, if there is one. First show the child how to hold the handlebars while carefully stepping across the cross bar. Then let them try it. They should get the hang of this after a few outings, and will soon start getting on without any help from you.
Step 3: Teach your child to get into the correct position for pull-off
This includes taking firm hold of the grips with both hands; facing straight ahead; and getting one pedal into position at a 45 degree angle for pull-off. This should be the pedal for the child’s dominant foot, which usually matches their dominant hand. Take this opportunity to remind your child to never take their hands off the grips.
Step 4: Teach your child to push off on the pedal while at the same time lifting their rear end onto the seat
It is possible for the child to get their rear end onto the seat in step 3, but only if the seat is very low. The problem with this is that if the seat is too low, pedaling will be much less efficient. You are likely to have to compromise by initially having the seat too low, and raising it to the correct height once the child gains confidence in the pull-off and pedaling.
It is far better to teach your child how to simultaneously push off on a pedal and elevate their butt onto the seat. This is the correct style that they will be able to use all their lives. It takes a bit of practice, but it will help them to get going with a bit of momentum. And momentum promotes balance, and will help them to avoid falling.
Step 5: Teach your child to ride the bike, including acquiring balance skills, pedaling skills, and turning skills
This is the part where you will have to work really hard! As shown in the video above, take hold of the back of the saddle and walk or run with the child. This enables you to keep the bike upright, while the child pedals until they achieve balance. As you feel them find their balance, you can gently let go of the saddle, but be ready to grab it again if necessary. Afterwards, be sure to tell them that they were doing it all on their own for part of the way! The first few times, they will be surprised and thrilled. This will motivate them to keep practicing.
Getting the bike balanced does require a bit of speed. Getting up speed is easier when you are not on grass, but falling on grass is less likely to cause a scrape. So you will have to decide which works better for you, grass or tarmac.
Step 6: Teach your child to turn corners by turning the handlebars appropriately
As shown in the video, you are likely to have to take hold of the handlebars at first to help your child get the hang of this. If you have been riding bikes for years, you might think that turning is obvious or easy. However, it is also a skill that has to be learned.
Step 7: Teach your child to use the hand brakes to gently stop the bike
This skill includes learning to use both hand brakes at the same time, as using just the front brakes can cause the rider to go over the handlebars. As we found, some children are surprised by even the concept of hand brakes, so be sure to show them how to use them, and give them plenty of safe opportunities to practice braking (see video).
Make sure that you teach your child how to dismount. This requires the child to first stop the bike by braking, then gently fall towards one side, using the leg on that side to prevent falling, and then dismount by lifting the other leg over the bike.
This is another skill that you might think is obvious, but in fact it requires practice. Your child may fall while learning this step. Take the opportunity to point out that this small fall does not cause any harm to come to the child.
As with all skills, practice makes perfect. Try to organize plenty of fun outings to places such as parks, where your child can safely practice his or her newfound skills. Soon, they will be having such fun, they will be biking all day long!
Provide Positive Feedback When You Teach a Child to Ride a Bike
Throughout this process, some children will be more daring, others will be more cautious. The more cautious children in particular require a lot of reassurance that no great harm will come to them, and that they are doing well.
It is common for parents to become tired and frustrated when teaching a child to ride a bike. After all, it is pretty exhausting running while holding a bike! Also, you may start to worry that your child will never learn. Plus, learning to ride a bike inevitably results in some falls, and this can be hard for some parents to witness. Remember, they are only going to fall about two feet!
It is essential that you don’t push your child too hard (literally and figuratively). Don’t make the child feel under pressure, or feel bad if they don’t instantly get it.
Instead, keep providing positive reinforcement for whatever they get right. As in, “Wow, you are really good at getting your pedals right!” or “That was really good braking.” I went as far as, “That was great falling!” After all, falling is a life skill too!
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Learning to ride a bike will take a while with most kids. Try doing only about twenty minutes a day, so as not to overwhelm the child or exhaust yourself. If possible, recruit a few other family members or friends to help, as it really can be hard work, physically and mentally.
But persevere, and one day you will feel that magical moment when the child takes off on their own on a bike. You can see that magic moment in the video, as Maggie feels exultation as Kara takes off on the bike – even if just for a moment. It really is a magical moment, and inevitably, those moments will get longer and longer. Until one wonderful day, your child will just take off on their own, leaving you behind. At that moment, as they speed away from you, you are going to be really glad you took the time to teach them how to brake!
Teaching kids to ride a bike is quite a challenge, but well worth it. You are setting them up for a lifetime of healthy fun, and even providing them with transportation. I was always much more interested in teaching my kids to ride a bike, rather than in teaching them to drive a car. Good luck with teaching your kids!
If your child is still too young to ride a bike, consider taking him or her along on your own bike! Read our in-depth post, 7 of the Best and Safest Baby and Child Bike Seats, with Reviews and Videos
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