Do you need to teach a child to ride a bike? It can be challenging, but you will be giving a child something very special: being able to ride a bike will open up doors to fun and healthy activities throughout that child’s life. Plus, there are amazing benefits to be reaped just from getting outside with your child, as is explained in this post about the 15 benefits of engaging with nature with your kids. This post explains step-by-step how to teach a child to ride a bike, based on our experience teaching our own kids and grandkids. The post includes short videos illustrating the most crucial points. Some of the tips here may surprise you, as they are contrary to conventional thinking on the subject.
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 best to be careful about what you buy for kids – the wrong bike can do more harm than good. Basically, there are four possibilities:
No. 1: Trikes (tricycles)
No. 2: Balance bikes (also known as glider bikes or strider bikes)
No. 3: Bikes with training wheels
No. 4: Regular bikes
This may surprise you, but we only recommend no. 2 and no. 4. We don’t recommend trikes, and we strongly recommend against bikes with training wheels.
The Problem with Trikes
Trikes tend to be slow, and are not as stable as you might think. They are hard to turn, and the parents tend to do most of the work (which is why many have a pushing handle). This means your child is getting little exercise, and not learning much, if anything. Almost all trikes are quite slow, and won’t allow your kids to even keep up with you a Saturday morning walk on the boardwalk – not under their own power, anyway.
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 probably already got this covered during their years in a stroller!
By contrast, balance bikes go faster and are 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, but once they get it, it is transferable to many other essential life skills, including, of course, riding a bike!
Check out this video, which very effectively shows how much better balance bikes are than trikes:
What’s Wrong with Training Wheels?
Most people buy their kids bikes with training wheels without thinking twice about it. I have done it myself, long ago. However, training wheels can actually do a whole lot of damage.
We have on several occasions 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 is 5, and Kara, who is 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:
#1: They had not learned a thing about balancing.
#2: They had acquired bad habits that were actively preventing them from learning to ride a real bike. These included persistently leaning heavily to one side (because they were used to leaning on one of the training wheels). This habit made it extremely hard for them to learn to balance. They had even got into the habit of occasionally removing their hands from the grips. Kara had learned to put both her hands on one side in order to turn in that direction – a recipe for disaster on a real bike!
#3: They had gotten used to coaster brakes (brakes which engage when you turn the pedals backward). As a result, they had no concept of using hand brakes, and also 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 a bike. 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. Many 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!
If Possible, Start Your Child off on a Balance Bike
In short, avoid trikes and avoid bikes with training wheels. Instead, it is ideal to start your child on a balance bike. 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.
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.
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!
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, but to start with your child has to first achieve the ability to balance while pedaling.
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 cost of about $30 per bike.
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.
The steps involved for a child to learn to ride a bike are:
Step 1: 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: 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: Get in 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). take this opportunity to remind your child to never take their hands off the grips.
Step 4: Push off on the pedal while at the same time lifting rear end onto 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.
Step 5: Ride the bike, including acquire balance skills, pedaling skills, and turning skills
This is the part where you will have to work hard! As shown in the video, 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, tell them they were doing it all on their own for part of the way! The first few times, they will be surprised and thrilled – and motivated to keep trying.
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: Turn corners by turning the handlebars appropriately
Again 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: Learn to use the hand brakes to gently stop the bike
This 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 safe opportunities to practice them (see video).
Step 8: Learn to dismount from the bike
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.
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!
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