It’s that time of year when parents are trying to get their kids out on bikes—some for the first time. If you’re not sure how to teach your child to ride a bike, or you are just looking for some helpful tips, here are my suggestions on how to get kids riding comfortably on two wheels. Follow this advice, and they’ll be flying in no time!
First Things First
Before you ever start teaching your child to ride a pedal bike, make sure that they have a solid sense of balance and a decent bike that won’t curtail their progress. Also, make sure they actually seem interested in learning.
Most kids are ready to ride a pedal bike sometime between the ages of 3 and 6. Readiness is very individual to each child, and may be at least partially dependent on how much they have been exposed to bicycles, how early they started riding a balance bike, and their own level of athletic ability/interest.
Lastly, make sure that kiddo is wearing a helmet before you start!
Start with a Balance Bike
If your kiddo hasn’t already been riding a balance bike, start them with that first. Yes, even if they aren’t a toddler anymore. Learning to balance on a push bike is so much easier than learning how to balance on a pedal bike. Read this article on why I recommend starting a balance bike, and this article on how to encourage your child to ride a balance bike.
Skip the Training Wheels
When your little one is ready to transition from a balance bike to a pedal bike, SKIP THE TRAINING WHEELS. I cannot emphasize this enough. Training wheels are a crutch and will make learning to ride a bike that much harder because kids don’t learn how to balance with them on. Additionally, they are a real pain in the butt because they constantly get high centered on uneven sidewalks.
Get your kid a decent bike
Learning to ride a bike is tough if the bike is too big or if it is too heavy. I always cringe when I see a child getting frustrated or upset because their parent has put them on the wrong bike. What a quick way to make a kid hate biking!
Make sure you provide your child with a bike that is lightweight, has a low center of gravity, and is the right size. If you need help choosing one, read my Guide to Buying a Quality Kids Bike.
How to Teach Your Child to Ride a Bike
Let Them Scoot
The easiest way to transition a kid from a balance bike to a pedal bike is to let them scoot around on it first. This allows them to (a) get a feel for the bike and recognize that it balances just the same as their old push bike, and (b) allows them to get up enough speed to independently start pedaling.
When you push your child, or hold onto their bike, it inevitably messes with their balance and decreases their sense of self-control. Resist the temptation to interfere and allow your child to take the lead instead.
Here’s a video of my 3 year old using this technique:
Find a very gradual downhill
It is so hard for a young child to propel a bike that weighs 1/3 of their body weight up even the slightest incline. When learning to ride a bike, momentum is your child’s friend. Start on a super mellow decline, and it will help them immensely.
Find a slightly larger downhill
Our front yard is sloped downward toward the sidewalk (as are all the yards on our street). We found it extremely helpful to put our son up the hill a few feet, and then let him cruise down it toward the sidewalk. This let him gain enough momentum to then start pedaling on his own. Again, momentum is key!
Don’t push it
Only work on biking if your child is having fun. As soon as they get frustrated, hurt, or tired, immediately call it a day. If you push too hard, you will only push them away from the sport all together. That said, don’t give up. Ask again the next day—keep offering even if the answer is no. Eventually, they will come around.
For really young kids, they might also choose to go back to the balance bike. That is ok. My little boy started riding his pedal bike at 2.5, but didn’t really love it until closer to 3.5. Even now, he prefers his balance bike for riding dirt trails and the pump track.
Put on your running shoes
Once your child has the whole pedaling thing down, spend some time on foot with them while they do a few neighborhood or bike path rides. In the beginning, they may have trouble making it up steep inclines such as the start of a sidewalk. I like to run alongside my son and giving him a “super-boost” by pressing gently on the back of his seat.
This also gives you a chance to provide coaching on when and where it is appropriate to start breaking before a traffic stop, how to hold a straight line, and when to start accelerating to make it over obstacles.
It’s much easier to provide coaching on foot than it is when you are riding your own bike. Once your child has things down, you can start going for family bike rides.
Do a skills practice
Helping a child become comfortable on a bike is about more than just teaching them pedal. The more confident and capable they are at handling the bike, the more fun they will have and the less likely they are to get hurt.
A good “game” to do with your kids, is to set up cones (or beanbags, cereal boxes, whatever you have) for your kids to practice their steering skills. Have them practice wide turns and figure-8s. You can also have them practice their braking skills by challenging them to stop before setting a cone 10-15 feet ahead.
Bike parks can also be a lot of fun for kids. Pump tracks, small ramps and teeter-totters can be a great way for kids to develop their bike skills. If you don’t have a bike park nearby, try building a ramp in your backyard!
Recap: Teach Your Child to Ride a Bike
- Start with a balance bike first
- When ready for a pedal bike, choose a lightweight, correct-fitting bicycle
- Remove the training wheels
- Practice on a gradual downhill
- Let your child scoot with their feet on the ground to gain momentum before pedaling
- Use cones (or similar) to set up a skills practice course
- Stop when your child is tired or frustrated–try again another day
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