In the back of my shed, I searched around car tires, sleds, and an abandoned rabbit cage. I knew it was in there somewhere. I moved aside outdoor cushions, dug under some dusty landscape fabric, and there it was! A long-forgotten treasure: a small orange balance bike that my son, now 11 years old, rode when he was a toddler.
I knew it was time to dig out the balance bike when I caught my two-year-old watching my big kids zip around on their bikes with great fascination. I excitedly carried the little bike over to my toddler and encouraged her to hop on. She looked at it quizzically but refused to get on. That’s when my teen took matters into his own hands. He hopped on the bike, knees up to his ears, and rode down our steep driveway. It was hilarious and exactly what we needed, but don’t worry, I’m not going to recommend that you ride a tiny bike down a steep driveway to teach your toddler how it’s done!
In this article, you’ll find my top 10 tips for teaching your toddler how to learn to ride a bike with confidence.
Why teach a toddler to ride a bike?
Learning how to ride a bike is a quintessentially childhood experience. I still remember the day my training wheels were removed. I pedalled up and down the block the entire afternoon showing off my newfound skill. Other than being an important childhood milestone, learning to ride a bike packs a punch when it comes to helping young children develop physical literacy. Biking helps develop balance, coordination, leg muscles, bone strength, and cardiovascular endurance. Since biking is also great for recreation, transportation, and connection (spending time with family and friends), it’s worth putting the effort early on to help your toddler get a leg up on this skill.
Top 10 tips for teaching your toddler to ride a bike
When it comes to teaching kids how to ride a bike, most articles focus on preschool-aged children and older. However, toddlers (ages one to three) can start learning how to ride a bike as soon as they start walking. Teaching a toddler how to ride a bike does take a different approach than teaching older kids, but you’ll be surprised by how much toddlers enjoy learning this new skill. Here are my top 10 tips for teaching toddlers how to ride a bike.
Tip #1: Gauge your toddler’s interest
Not all toddlers are interested in learning how to ride a bike, and that’s alright. I do find that toddlers with older siblings seem more keen, and that’s possibly because they’ve had more exposure to bikes and want to imitate their brother or sister. My toddler started showing interest at about two-and-a-half years old after watching her older siblings ride around the driveway on their bikes. If your toddler isn’t interested in bikes, there’s a couple approaches you can try. The first approach is to give it time. Kids learn how to ride bikes at all ages and, depending on the personality of your child, waiting until they show interest might be the best call. The other approach is to provide opportunities for positive interactions with bikes and biking. More on that idea in Tip #4.
Tip #2: Strap on a helmet
Before putting your toddler on a bike, strap on a helmet! According to the Canadian Pediatric Society, head injuries account for about half of all bicycling injuries in children and youth and helmets can reduce the risk of head and brain injury by 60 to 69%. Here’s a helpful article for finding the right type and size of helmet for your child and Parachute Canada has a great resource for learning how to properly fit a helmet.
Tip #3: Start with balance
There are several main aspects to riding a bike: balancing, steering, pedalling, and braking. When it comes to teaching a toddler how to ride a bike, I recommend starting with balance. The best way to teach a toddler how to balance on a bike is to use a balance bike. These bikes, also called a run bike, have been around for about 200 years but it wasn’t until 2007, when the Strider bike came onto the scene, that balance bikes became mainstream. What I like about balance bikes is that they come in really small sizes—perfect for toddlers. Alternatively, you can turn a small bike into a balance bike by removing the pedals. It’s also quite easy to find a balance bike secondhand for a fraction of the cost of buying one new.
Tip #4: Introduce biking in a fun and pressure-free way
Whether your toddler’s first bike is new or used, present it in a fun and pressure-free way. Have your toddler explore the bike with all his senses and when he’s ready, help him sit on the seat. Some toddlers want to learn how to ride right away while other toddlers need some time to warm up to the idea. That’s okay—just follow your toddler’s lead. After showing my toddler her bike, it took her about a week before trying it on her own. I like to leave my toddler’s bike in an obvious and easy-to-access location. This strategy helps her know where to find her bike if she wants to ride it. Currently, I leave her bike by the front door so that she sees it when we go outside together. Most days, she takes it for a spin around the driveway or the yard. If your toddler really isn’t keen on learning how to ride a bike, but you’re a biking kind of family, try creating fun experiences around bikes, like towing her behind your bike in a child carrier.
Tip #5: Get those feet on the ground
Riding a balance bike is a bit different than riding a pedal bike. For starters, your toddler will use her feet to push off the ground and propel forward. To do this effectively, make sure the bike seat is low enough so that your toddler’s feet lay flat on the ground. Most toddlers will start by walking the balance bike while being seated but they will eventually learn to run and then glide. Once your toddler has learned how to balance, steer, and glide a balance bike all on her own, she’s ready to graduate to a pedal bike. Woo hoo!
Tip #6: Find a flat open space
Learning how to ride a balance bike is easiest on a flat, open space. I prefer starting my toddler on well-trimmed grass as this provides a bit of extra cushion for those first falls. I’ve included more about managing falls in Tip #8. Play parks often have grassy spots that are perfect for learning how to ride a balance bike but a backyard works great too if you have one. Once your toddler has gained confidence on their bike, move on to asphalt.
Tip #7: Help with stabilizing and steering
The first time your toddler gets on a balance bike, he might feel a bit shaky. I find it really helpful to assist my toddler in finding stability by holding her shoulders and gently guiding her forwards. You can crouch down and hold the handlebars with your toddler for the same effect. Once your toddler can stabilize the bike and walk forward while seated, you can show her how to steer using a similar technique. Hold the handle bars and show your toddler how to turn right and turn left.
Tip #8: Practice the dismount
Falling down is an unavoidable part of learning how to ride a bike, but there are ways to ease the pain. First, start your toddler’s first few bike rides on a well-trimmed lawn. Second, help your toddler learn how to dismount from the bike safely. I do this by holding the handlebars so that my toddler can practice lifting her leg over the seat a few times. My toddler also likes to pretend to “crash” onto the ground. This is her own way of feeling more comfortable and in control of getting off the balance bike quickly if it falls over.
Tip #9: Keep it short
Learning how to ride a bike is a lot of work for a toddler, so it helps to keep biking sessions nice and short, at least at first. You may only go a few feet during those first bike rides, and that’s okay! Slowly build up the distance that you go and be ready to carry your toddler’s bike home if he gets tired or loses interest. Before you know it, you’ll be running after your little speedster.
Tip #10: Learn how to pedal!
Once your toddler can confidently ride a balance bike or two-wheeled bike with the pedals removed, it’s time to learn how to pedal! If your toddler was using a balance bike, I recommend moving up to a small two-wheeled pedal bike. Depending on the size of your toddler, you’ll probably need a small bike with wheels that are between 12 and 14 inches in diameter. However, the best bet is to visit your local bike shop and get an expert recommendation. If your toddler was using a two-wheeled bike with the pedals removed, now is the time to add them back on. Once you’ve got a small bike with pedals, have your toddler practice putting their feet on and off the pedals quickly while you hold the bike steady. Next, help your toddler get a feel for pedalling forward by having her sit on the seat and holding the back wheel of the bike slightly off the ground. Once the basics of pedalling are covered, revisit tips #6, 7, and 8 to help your toddler combine balance, steering, peddling, and braking all together.
Bonus tip: Be patient and keep it fun
Some toddlers learn how to ride a bike quickly, and others take much longer. One day your toddler might love their bike, then the next day they might hate it. Don’t stress about the process. As most parents of toddlers know, toddlerhood is a fickle time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while teaching my toddler how to ride a bike (this is my fourth toddler to learn) is to be patient and keep it fun. If you’re looking for some fun activities to help your toddler work on their bike skills you might want to read: 5 fun activities that can help build your child’s bike-riding skills.
What about training wheels?
If your toddler is having a difficult time pedalling it might be tempting to get training wheels; however, most biking experts encourage parents to avoid training wheels. Training wheels tend to teach young children bad habits that can be difficult to unlearn later on. If your toddler is struggling with pedals they might need to spend more time on a balance bike or perhaps the bike needs to be adjusted. A bike that is too small or a seat that is set too low can make pedalling and balancing tricky.
Teaching your toddler how to ride a bike is a great activity for developing balance, coordination, and strength. By following these tips for teaching toddlers how to ride a bike, your toddler will have a strong foundation in the skills needed to become a confident little cruiser.