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How to Teach your Child to Ride a Bike

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Little Miss One Wheel Drive is now 5 years old and in her second year of riding a bike on her own. Being the most special person in my life, I wanted to pass on my love of riding to her so that she could also enjoy it early on, and in teaching her I learned a few things myself.

Her learning journey started very young. As soon as she could hold her head up on her own with any strength, I started taking her on my bike with me all over the place. Getting groceries, running errands, going for rides around town… She had a child seat that mounted up front between my seat and the handlebars where I could talk to her as we were riding around.

Miss OWD loved these rides, and so did I. We went everywhere, and it opened up many locations that would be harder to get to by other ways. It was easy to ride up to the parliament buildings, go by the eternal flame, scoot around the back to look at the river and all the rest. By car we would need to park, walk to the parliament, walk around; it’s a much bigger commitment and not nearly the delights per minute that you get biking as a family. And then, if HEY there’s a marching band there! you can easily ride over and follow along.

This introduced her to the idea of bike transportation from the get go, forming important habits and lowering her resistance to it in the future. When it comes to helmets, mine wore one before she was able to even walk so getting one on later won’t be an issue.

I’m very grateful to a friend of mine who introduced me to the idea of run bikes, also known as balance bikes or strider bikes. Using one of these is totally the way to go. I consider training wheels to be harmful to learning to ride a bike for several reasons:

  1. The most important skill with riding a bike is learning to balance properly. Training wheels don’t foster that; if anything, they teach bad habits about cornering
  2. Bikes with training wheels are usually crappy, heavy bikes, made heavier with heavy training wheels that don’t roll well, which means
  3. Children have to work hard at pedalling, which is really a secondary skill, but made difficult by the fact that the bike is so heavy and rolls so poorly so that they have to concentrate at it, and can’t go too far, which makes biking a chore and not as much fun
  4. Training wheels doesn’t prevent tipping, especially when cornering going downhill, and when that happens the child is not able to handle it which then scares him/her and reduces the enjoyment from biking even further.
  5. The very first bikes (called velocipedes) didn’t even have pedals, it was only until later that they were added. Unscientific as it is, this makes me feel like the natural progression is to start with bikes without pedals.

It’s become a lot easier in the last few years to buy a run bike, and lately I’ve seen them at bike shops. It’s crucial that the bike be very light, as your child doesn’t weigh very much either, so comparatively every pound that you can cut will make a big difference.

You can also make your own by taking off the pedals a regular kid bike (and the bottom bracket to save weight) if your kid is big enough to sit on a toddler’s bike. Being frugal, I made my own from some scrap ¼” and ½” birch plywood that I had left over as well as some 12″ wheels I got from a kid’s bike in the garbage; it’s quite easy to do and was also ridiculously light but not really worth it now that you can find them so much more easily and cheaply  (they are even at Costco, and if you can get a used one you should be able to get sell it again for about the price you bought it for).

I gave it to my daughter for her third birthday. At first she would walk at a very slow pace while focusing on the steering and for this we went to an alleyway and sidewalks that had very little traffic, or to the park where she had space to go around. It took a couple months but eventually she was able to cruise down hills without putting her feet down. I remember when she got the hang of it and was starting to glide without her feet touching the ground, she was so proud (and I was proud of her).

One thing that we discovered was not to spend too long at a time at it while she was learning. 10 to 20 minutes was enough. She seemed to learn more overnight processing what had happened than she did while she was actually on the bike. Also, I didn’t try to push her or teach her too much. At that age it’s as hard for them to pay attention to complicated instructions and parsing what I’m saying as it is just to figure out for themselves how to keep their balance. Also, we kept it fun. If she got distracted by passing dogs, balls, or whatever else I didn’t worry about it, maybe we can get back to biking later or another day.

The months where she was working it out were back breaking months of me walking crouched over next to her, holding on to her seat to keep her upright. I found that it was a bit easier to hold the handlebars instead with a light touch, so that she could still steer but also I would guide a bit. That way she could absorb it as she went.

Once she could glide along on her own we were able to go for longer distances, albeit VERY slowly. To move things along I would either pedal alongside on my bike and push her, which often she hated (“let ME do it, daddy”) so I would walk behind and push the back of the seat, which she was not likely to notice but was still very hard on the back. I got the idea to push the frame of her bike from behind with a broom handle (remember that?) while walking upright and that made things so much easier.

Soon it was time to step up to a pedal bike. Manufacturers don’t put a lot of effort on these. Most parents don’t want to spend a lot of money on a kid’s bike since kids will grow out of them soon, so many kids’ bikes are basically toys, cheaply made and very heavy, at least 20 pounds; likely weighed down even more by ridiculous Dora or Spiderman stuff. For a 30 pound girl, this bike would weigh almost as much as she did (it’s weird because before the baby is born people will spend stupid amounts of money on strollers, blankets, monitors etc).

Kids are also shaped differently than adults, with comparatively shorter arms and legs; it’s not enough to take an adult bike and shrink it down to kid size while keeping the same shape.

I wanted biking to be something that she could be passionate about and would learn to do well, so I decided to spend a bit extra and invest in a good quality bike. From my reading the best of these is the Specialized Hotrock. Not only is it lighter, with an aluminum frame, but they take their kids bikes seriously with a kid-friendly frame geometry that is tailored towards kids’ different body shape. Unfortunately these are not sold in Canada, but on a business trip to the US I was able to pick up a used Hotrock 16″ in ok shape for $70 (new they are around $350). It was a “boy’s” bike being blue and black. Not having been taught about gender differentiation my daughter didn’t even notice.

The bike comes with training wheels which we left on until she could get the handle of pedalling. It’s amazing (because it becomes so second nature) how much trouble that she had at first with the co-ordination and getting the hang of pushing down with one foot and then another, and it took a few tries but she was a trooper and worked her way through it. Braking also had to be learned but that seemed to come easily. One thing that turned out to be good was that she learned early on about locking her rear wheel and could play with that, so that if it happened by accident and her wheel started to slide out she did not panic (as I’ve seen other kids do).

With the training wheels on she soon stopped paying attention to her balance, and reverted back to relying on her training wheels to keep her upright, which I found very troubling. Even once she got used to pedalling and had no more problems with it she didn’t want to take the training wheels off. I didn’t argue with her; she was having fun, and that was the important part. I had to trust her to take things at her own pace.

In a few weeks she was at the point where she could pedal for a couple blocks easily and we decided to take her onto Colonel By on a Sunday morning when it is open to bikes. She loved it! it was great to be able to go on a real road without having to worry about cars and she also got a real kick about all the other kids riding their bikes all on their own. She kept saying “Look! That <boy/girl> is riding a bike!” And that was it for the training wheels. When we got back to the house she wanted them taken off and that was that! To get started she needed a little shove or a hill but once she was moving she was ok on her own.

Now she can bike up to about 15 km which takes about two hours, but mostly we go for shorter trips. In order to make it more fun for myself, I got myself a used BMX bike that I can ride slowly and do a few tricks. She got into the mood as well and now is always doing new “tricks” like riding with both feet off the pedals at the same time (like to go through a puddle), putting one foot to the side, or pedaling standing up (another great “trick”).

This bike will probably last another 3 years before it’s time to move to a bigger one. I added a few accessories: an aluminum kickstand from an adult bike that I cut shorter, a bell, simple lights, and streamers. Even not factoring the money that we’ll get when we resell it, it works out to maybe $30-40 per year for countless hours of fun, much more than if we had spent more money on lots of toys. The time that we spend together riding is also bonding time for the family, and makes running errands more fun.

Unfortunately riding on any of the major roads is quite troubling. She sticks to the sidewalk and I ride next to her, so I end up going quite slowly in traffic; we try to avoid it if we can and instead shop at places that are more accessible. If there are parked cars then they are between me and her and I am terrified that a passenger on the sidewalk side will open their door without seeing her, especially if she is going downhill. If it’s a quiet road and there are no cars then I’ve started taking her out in the lane where I think that it’s safer.

Like so many things, I found it best to provide the example, and expose her to others, but let her (mostly) figure out for herself how to do it and have fun.

One thought on “How to Teach your Child to Ride a Bike

  1. Very great tips and instructions! I think it’s but right that children, young as they may be, are taught how to ride a bike – and, of course, why they ought to ride a bike!

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