Letting Life Lead
In honor of my four year old son learning to ride his two wheeled bike today, I would like to share with you how you can teach children to ride a bike without tears and the lumps on the head.
If you were lucky enough to survive a 1970s (or 80s) childhood, helmets were rare, no one wore elbows and knee pads, your pants always had knee holes, and you ignored bleeding elbows. As a parent, you might be at a loss for how to teach a child to ride a bike other than putting them on it, hoping for the best, and running yourself out of breath trying to hold them up.
Five steps is all you need and their duration depends entirely on the child. One child might go through all the steps in one day, and another may take a week or more to master a step. Of course, be sure your child is equipped with helmet, elbow and knee pads. Falls are inevitable, but you’ll be surprised at how children’s reflexes react. It is easier to recover from a fall if you aren’t nursing nasty scrapes. Riding gloves are a bonus not a necessity, but can protect hands from the sting of asphalt when breaking a fall.
Take off the training wheels. When a child already knows how to pedal, the training wheels have served their purpose; they do not allow children to self correct their balance. Remove both pedals. This allows children to coast without getting pummeled in the ankles. Lower the bike seat so that the child can be flat-foot on the ground when sitting. What you have created is a sit-scooter or balance-bike. It is not necessary to buy a separate piece of equipment.
Show them first how they cannot fall because their feet will only be an inch off the ground either way. Find a gentle, safe incline (short, cut, grass works too) and have the child practice sitting and coasting under the influence of gravity. Their feet and reflexes will self-correct when the bike tilts one way or another. This is an important skill to master.
Children who use training wheels do not self correct balance because they don’t have to. With my own six year old daughter she leaned to the far right or far left, made impossible hard turns, and mounted the bike with two feet rather than balancing with one and pushing off with the other. These were habits she had to unlearn when I took the training wheels off. She even kept forgetting that she couldn’t just let go of the bike and walk off or else it might fall on her foot! My four year old son did not have that as an obstacle. Watch your own children’s habits when they ride with training wheels.
My daughter was also surprised that she got saddle sore the first week because she never before had to put so much effort on that part of her body to stay upright.
Once a child is able to coast and lift their feet off the ground for a few seconds at a time, they will need to provide more momentum to keep going. While seated, they can double-push with their feet to scoot or with alternating feet. The stronger they are the faster they will go. They may also now practice turning right or left while coasting and scooting. Some children will get this right away and others may need the help of an incline to get started. You can give them a turning target to head for if you like.
Put one pedal back on and have the child scoot one foot on and one foot free. In my opinion, this is an important transition because it gets them used to having their feet off the ground without having to worry about pedaling yet. The goal is to build up the habit of learning to push start with one foot — which is what you need to do to get going on a two-wheeled bike. Even if the child teeters off balance with the pedal-foot, they will put it down to prevent a fall because they have already practiced that with coasting. I always had the pedal starting in the down most position. Once the child has mastered the one-pedal, they can move to the next step.
Now it’s time to put the other pedal on. The child should have all the skills they need at this point to go on a two-wheel run: they know they can’t just drop the bike, they can correct their balance by putting their feet to the ground, they can push the bike to get it going, they know what it feels like to have their feet off the ground, and they are used to looking ahead and not at their shoes.
They will weeble-wobble at first, and they may yank the handlebars hither and to, but once they get a good run their instincts should take over fairly quickly. It may help to get them out of their heads and have them focus on a target or goal (“racing” the daddy worked for us). A gentle incline might help a start or little adult locomotion might be necessary. Children should get the idea very quickly that they can use their one-pedal-push skill to get them going again on a flat surface. You may need to raise the seat at this point if you notice they need more room to pedal.
Don’t forget to remind children that their bikes do have brakes! Some children’s bikes have hand brakes, but most I’ve seen have pedal brakes. Most children can stop their bikes by just slowing down and using their feet Flintstone-style, but they should master their brakes as soon as they are riding stable and picking up speed. Some children might enjoy stopping at a target point you choose when first learning.
Don’t have a set goal for the skills. My athletic daughter was more than ready (I wish I had done this last year) and took four non-consecutive days, my son is younger and had just learned to pedal a tricycle and his journey took a month (“must do what my sister does” was the primary motivation). Other children might put this all together in a day and others might take weeks to learn each skill.
I do suggest not asking questions that you aren’t willing to accept the answer to. Simply take off the training wheels; don’t ask. I made that mistake last year with my daughter even though I knew she was more than capable. Better yet, go directly from tricycle to two-wheeler and never use the training wheels like I did with my son.
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