We all learned how to ride in different ways, but here are some of the current best practices on how to raise a bike-loving, skilled rider.
When’s the best age to teach a child to ride?
You might wonder what age is the right one to teach a child to ride. It really depends on the individual child. Riding a bike takes strength, balance, and coordination. Children gain these skills and abilities at different ages. My daughter pedaled away before her third birthday, but I know lots of kids are still learning at five or six.
Wheeled toys (two, three, or four wheels) can fit children as young as 12 months. If you can, give your toddler or preschooler lots of opportunities to have fun scooting around on wheeled toys. This can help them to become more confident and comfortable pedaling on their own later on.
Guest post by Mike Holroyd
Mike Holroyd is a high-performance kayak coach, avid cyclist, and father of two bike-loving kids. His wife, Lina Holroyd-Wolf, also grew up riding and paddling in Germany and is the owner/operator of Kids Bikes Canada, an online retailer of quality kids’ cycling products (they also maintain a great map of kid-friendly bike parks and pumptracks in Canada!).
First: be patient and have confidence in your child
Keep in mind that learning is an individual process. While some kids will grab a bike and take off, more often it is a slower progression. As with any new skill, the child’s (and parent’s!) confidence is key. Be patient. Each stage might take a while. Take cues from the child as to when they are confident and ready for the next step.
Related read: For new cyclists, developing confidence is key
How to help your child learn to balance on a bike
Balance- or run-bikes are the best way to teach the skills needed to balance on two wheels. Balance bikes typically are designed for 18 months old. Three distinct stages are part of the balance bike progression.
- The child starts by walking, with the bike between their legs, with the seat low.
- They sit on the seat and run, mostly with the balls of their feet, with at least one foot on the ground at all times.
- They can sit on the seat, lift their feet, and glide and balance for longer periods of time.
How to teach your child to pedal
Understanding how to move your feet to pedal a bike is a distinct skill. Four options for teaching the motion are:
- A three-wheeled tricycle is a good quick way to teach the pedal stroke.
- Training wheels, but rather than think that training wheels help train balance (they don’t), treat them only as pedal motion training.
- Take the bike you want them to learn on, and suspend the back tire by the axle so they can pedal freely without any requirement for balance.
- They can learn to pedal with you running alongside, supporting the child for full balance support.
Kids don’t really need to do this for very long, but practice with the pedal motion can be a helpful way to make the two-wheel pedaling progression quicker.
How to choose your child’s first bike
Bike size is important. When first learning, kids should be able to sit on the bike’s seat with their feet flat on the ground. This way they’ll know they can always just put a foot down. It will also allow them to start and stop on their own, and may help your child feel more confident to try riding on their own.
You’ll notice that when the seat is positioned this way, their knees may seem high. That’s fine. It’s only temporary.
There are two kinds of braking systems for children’s bikes. A freewheel bike (pedals can spin backwards) with handbrakes will be easier to learn on. Coaster brake bikes, where the pedals engage the brake, can be frustrating as it can be hard for new riders to spin the pedal into the starting position.
How to teach your child to ride their first “real” bike
Children sometimes need a little time to get used to a new bike. Tip: when a child is first learning to ride, you can actually take the pedals off for the first little bit while they get comfortable with the bike—basically using it like a balance bike. If the bike has hand brakes, this is a great time for them to try the brakes and get the idea of stopping with their hands. Once your child looks comfortable, or starts asking for pedals, you can put the pedals back on.
Find an open space that is flat or has a slight downslope when first teaching a child to pedal and balance on their own.
At the start, you may want to spot your child, so they feel comfortable that they won’t just fall over. As with everything, there are a few ways to do this:
- You can hold the back of the seat. That way they feel the help, but don’t necessarily see the help you are providing.
- You can also hold the handlebar and seat.
- Another great technique (for those of us with bad backs!) is to put a towel under their arms, across their chest, and hold the ends behind. Again, this reassures a child that they have help, without necessarily seeing you in front of them. The added height you get from the towel also means you aren’t bent over running around.
The moment your child rides free on their own is a precious one. Don’t forget they might forget how to stop! Run with them if you can, so you can make sure their first stop is as successful as their start.
With your patience and support, your child will develop the skills, confidence, and love of riding that will last a lifetime.