Start ‘em Young: Teaching a Child How to Ride a Bicycle

Learning how to ride a bicycle as a child is a rite of passage. It’s their first taste of independence with the wind in their face and that feeling that they can ride forever, meandering anywhere and everywhere their little arms and legs can take them. But it’s also an experience that is often met with doubt, hesitation, and anxiety as the thought of falling is always only a split second away.

Back when most of us learned how to ride a bike the process consisted of starting out with a set of training wheels bolted to either side of the back of a kid’s bike. Eventually, after you’d bent each training wheel arm beyond repair—and most likely broke one completely off—your parents would decide it was time to wean you off the wheeled crutches. And as one would expect, this news would be received with a flood of tears, some screaming, and possibly even a ground-pounding tantrum. Needless to say, those first couple attempts at independent two-wheeled motion probably didn’t end too well, mostly with more tears and screaming and the veiled threat that you’ll never try to ride a bike again.

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, don’t worry, these days with the revival and popularity of push bikes your kids don’t have to go through the same trauma we did when learning to ride a bicycle.

For those unfamiliar with the term push bike, it’s essentially a bicycle without any pedals—the rider uses their feet to scoot or run the bike for motion. Grandfather to the modern bicycle and the first method in which people were able to transport themselves via two in-line wheels, the pushbike was invented by Baron Karl von Drais of Germany back in 1817, however back then it was referred by several fancier names, the Dandy Horse, Draisienne, or laufmaschine. As with all inventions, the push bike was tweaked and reworked to be more efficient with the incorporation of a human powered mechanical drive system, thus creating the bicycle or in 1900s terms, the velocipede.

ST-3mj1Fast-forward nearly 200 years and we have now seen resurgence in push bikes with companies like Strider using modern materials and designs specifically for the purpose of teaching children how to ride a bike. Also called balance bikes, by eliminating potentially distracting components such as pedals and training wheels, push bikes allow children to focus their attention solely on developing the most basic skills necessary to ride a traditional bike; balance, special awareness, speed control, and counter steering.

By employing a push bike, before you know it your child will be tearing around and ready to make the transition from pushing to pedaling. Here are some tips and advice on how to teach a child how to go from a push bike to a pedal bike.

Safety First

TL1267-1200As a parent you are always on the defensive, doing anything and everything you can to keep your child out of harm’s way, this is especially true when it comes to teaching your child how to ride a push bike or a pedal bike. Try and remember back when you learned to ride, there were tip-overs, wipeouts, skinned knees, and lots of tears. Now you won’t be there to catch every fall or mishap but you can help lessen the pain of a fall with safety gear. Some parents will go all out dressing their kids to the hilt in protective gear to the point that they look like a hockey goalie—and this is fine, to each their own. However, the most important piece of bicycle riding gear you want to ensure your child has and always uses is a bicycle helmet. You can add elbow guards, knee pads, shin guards, and whatever else you feel is necessary but a proper fitting bicycle helmet will help protect the most vital part of your child’s body. Plus, in many states it’s a law that children under the age of 16 wear a helmet when riding a bicycle.

Two things you need to do when shopping for a kid’s bicycle helmet is check for proper fitment and let the child be part of the decision process. The helmet should fit so it sits level on top of the head with 1-2 inches of clearance just above the eyes and adequate protection at the lower back of the head. You want the helmet to fit snugly but not be so tight that it is uncomfortable. The straps should form into a Y just below the earlobes and have an adjustment so that it fits under the chin with enough room to fit one finger in. Also, keep in mind that brightly colored helmets will help make your child more visible to others on the road and sidewalks. And by allowing the child to pick the helmet they like best you’ll know they’ll want to wear it.

The Right Ride

When it comes to picking out your child’s first bike there are several things you should be looking for. First of all you want to get a kid’s bike that is light enough that your child can easily lift it and balance it. Also look for a bike that can be adjusted to continually fit them for the next couple years as they continue to grow. Make sure that your child can place their feet so that both are firmly planted flat-footed on the ground when standing astride the bike. If the seat is too tall ask one of the sales associates to lower the seat to its lowest position so you can test it out. Also check that the handlebars are adjustable so that as your child gets taller and you raise the seat height you can adjust the handlebar height to a comfortable and safe riding position as well. Be sure to take note of the weight capacity of the bicycle as well, if your child is already near the recommended weight limit try looking at another bicycle brand or stepping up one size.

As stated earlier, a balance bike like those offered by Strider is an excellent way to ease your child onto two wheels. With no crank, pedals, or chain to worry about your child can glide around without any distractions on the bike. Recommended for children as young as 18 months, Strider bikes offer a super-lightweight design, simple five-minute setup, easy adjustability, and footpegs integrated into the frame for solid foot placement when coasting. If you’ve already purchased a traditional style pedal bike with training wheels you can give them the balance bike experience simply by removing the pedals and training wheels. Even if your child has gotten used to pedaling around with training wheels by removing the pedals and extra wheels you can help make the process of developing balance skills a much simpler task.

Slow and Steady

Once you have the proper sized bike and it has been adjusted to fit your child the first thing you want them to do is to learn balance. Basically you can do this by taking them to a large open area that will give them plenty of room to maneuver around and where there won’t be a lot of obstacles or distractions. Get the child situated with the bike between their legs and then have them slowly walk in a straight line as you walk beside them offering praise and encouragement. This will help them get used to the process of using the handlebars to steer while they slowly walk the bike around. As the child gets more comfortable with this drill begin to distance yourself further and further away so that they build up confidence and independence. Once the child is comfortable enough encourage them to sit on the seat and begin scooting around. Have them start off slow at first and gradually pick up speed. Then, when they are confident and ready you can then teach them to raise their feet off the ground and glide around every so often.

Let the Games Begin

As a parent having plenty of patience is a key factor in making the learning process a fun one. Keep in mind that not all children will progress at the same rate and some will take longer to move to the next skill level, but as long as you are patient and constantly offer comfort and encouragement the child will continue to want to learn. As they become more proficient at propelling themselves by pushing with their feet and coasting you can incorporate some games to help improve their spatial awareness and handling skills. You can use soda cans or cones to set up a course for them to ride through. Keep the course wide and the turns large at first.

When they get better at making it through without hitting anything encourage them to go faster and to try coasting through large portions. Gradually make the turns tighter and the riding area narrower. Change up the course design from straight line slalom style to meandering tracks. You could also set up a line for them to propel themselves to and then have them pick up their feet and see how far they can coast. Use soda cans to mark each spot and encourage them to try and make it further and further each time. Other ways you can improve their coordination and balance is to incorporate different types of terrain and small obstacles. Create courses that have slight inclines/declines, tougher surfaces like dirt and grass, and easy obstacles for them to ride over like small mounds of dirt, gradual wooden ramps, and 2×4 speed bumps. The bicycle tires on the Strider are made of flat-free EVA polymer which is hard enough to cross a variety of terrains with ease and withstand punctures or rugged abuse.

Pedal Power

When you feel your child is comfortable on two wheels, can coast for long periods, can ride downhill without putting their feet down, can safely react to and maneuver around obstacles, and most importantly they say they are ready and willing to, you can move up to a pedal bike. Similar to choosing a balance bike, with a pedal bike you want to get one that fits the child. Keep in mind that pedals, a crank assembly, and a chain add weight to a bike making a pedal bike will be quite a bit heavier than a balance bike, so try to find the lightest pedal bike that will accommodate your child.

RL-156760Redline has been a top name in BMX bikes for many years and has a wide range of different sized bikes for riders at all skill levels. The Redline Raid CB 16 is a great entry level bike that is lightweight and low to the ground with its 16 inch rims. With an adjustable seat and handlebar height the Raid can grow with your child. While the Raid comes with training wheels, if you’ve started your child out on a balance bike you should remove the training wheels so they don’t regress and become dependent on them. You also might want to consider removing the pedals for the first couple hours so the child can get used to the weight of the bike.

And after they have become accustomed to the new bike you can then add the pedals. However, before they try to start pedaling show them how the pedals work and explain to them how to use their feet to push down on the pedals and cycle through the revolution. Also show them how the brakes work, although they may reactively put their feet down to slow down. When first starting out encourage the child to push the bike with their feet like they did with the balance bike and then once they get going slowly glide their feet onto the pedals without looking down. It may take some time to get used to and you may want to run beside them to offer encouragement and support. If you do try to physically support the child as they move around, do so by placing a hand on the child and not the bike. If you try to support the bike it will disrupt the child’s ability to find their natural balance, so try placing a hand on the back to help keep them confident.

DB-02-14-2330-03Eventually the child will become proficient at pushing then pedaling and at that point you can then teach them how to pedal off from a stop. To do this, let the child determine which foot they feel most comfortable with and have them place the other foot on the ground for balance and support. Set the pedal between the 2 and 3 o’clock position and then have the child push off and pedal away. Once again you may need to provide some light physical support. Before you know it the child will have mastered starting, stopping, turning, and maneuvering out of harm’s way. And then the next thing you know they’ll be eyeing up that shiny new Diamondback Overdrive Mountain bike.

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