Our child took to riding a bike pretty well and we ride around a lot to get from place to place, so we're frequently asked about how to get kids started on a bike, and how to make a child feel comfortable riding a bike.
Back in the day: Training wheels
I have memories of when I was a child, watching my dad adjust the training wheels of my old yellow bike. I remember him adjusting the training wheels as I started to get more comfortable on the bike, and how sometimes I'd be riding only on one training wheel or none at all, depending on the terrain and how much I was leaning over. I remember the slightly loud sound of the wheels as they rolled on the ground. All of us neighborhood kids got scared when the biggest kid on the block rode down a hill (on his first ride without training wheels!) and fell and skinned his knee. He started crying, and we rarely saw him cry.
We all got over it, and my dad adjusted the training wheels to be higher and higher until one day I didn't need them anymore.
Now: Balance bikes
When we had a child of our own, we noticed that many families were using balance bikes instead of training wheels. There's been a bit of a paradigm shift and balance bikes seem to come out ahead. Kids can ride faster sooner, develop a sense of balance earlier, and balance bikes are way easier for parents to carry around. Two Wheeling Tots has a great article comparing balance bikes and training wheels.
Our own experience with teaching a child to ride a bike
I think our child's first experience with riding on her own was with a Joovy Tricycoo tricycle scooter. She was way too weak to be able to pedal herself, but it gave her the opportunity to become acquainted with the idea of pushing a pedal to move. Joovy has reduced the pedaling force required in current models: they are much easier to pedal now. Ours came with a convenient switch to disengage the pedals if our child just wanted to spin.
We started our child on a balance bike when she was about 18 months old. I picked up a used Strider picked up off of Craigslist, and she loved it right away. She was initially hesitant to do anything more than waddle with it, but that was okay.
A few months later, we visited Pedalfest, a celebratory annual bike festival in Oakland, produced by Bike East Bay. We visited the Yuba Bicycles booth, where they were offering test rides of the first kids cargo bike ever, the Yuba Flip Flop (sadly no longer available). Our child loved being able to carry her stuffed animal in the front basket. We bought one soon after, and gave the Strider away to friends who had a younger child.
Her waddling with the bike eventually turned into walking with it, and she was able to run and glide on her own after a few months. The cargo basket and panniers allowed her to put sticks, rocks, leaves, and other collected items in her own compartment rather than our pockets! They were also convenient for carrying snacks, stuffed animals, and jackets.
The transition to pedaling
When our child was a 3-year-old, we borrowed a small pedal bike, lowered the seat all the way, and tried to see if she'd like it. She did not. The pedals got in the way of her gliding, and she didn't feel comfortable putting her feet up on the pedals. She complained, and we stuck with the balance bike.
In the meantime, we sometimes took out a Wehoo recumbent pedal trailer to enjoy a bike ride and give her a chance to pedal herself. The trailer was really nice because our child could be securely and comfortably buckled in and pedal when she felt like it. Here's a photo of another parent's trailer:
My first official school pick up with our new-to-us WeHoo kid bike trailer. My kiddo is nervous about wobbly bikes, so I thought this one, with a chair and arms, would make him feel safer. It does! He loves it and feels so much more confident bike riding! 💖 pic.twitter.com/0cVml4Um0W
— Jill 💉💉🎉 (@jillithd) May 28, 2019
One common practice to help children transition to a pedal bike is to simply remove the pedals of a pedal bike until the child is ready to pedal. This prevents the pedals from getting in the way of the child's legs as they glide, and makes it so that you, the parent, don't have to buy two separate bikes. This can usually be done with an adjustable wrench or pedal wrench on your own, or is easily done at a bike shop if you don't feel comfortable doing so yourself.
Our child got her own pedal bike when she was 5 and she took to it right away. She excitedly got onto the bike and started pedaling immediately. We had to run after her to make sure she was going to be okay, knowing that she had no idea how to use the coaster brake or the hand brake. (If you're wondering about size, this bike was one with 16" wheels.)
Each child is different of course
She loved riding her new bike, but it still took a while for her to get used to. There were lots of crashes, near misses, and so on. I don't recommend rushing to get your child on a bike, but I do recommend making a bike (and a space to ride!) available so that they can try if they'd like with light encouragement. We have neighbors who have kids who would go to dirt tracks and perform jumps at the age of 4, and others who are older and don't feel comfortable on a bike yet. There are other children who are truly inspiring in their abilities: this kid can ride 5 miles at the age of 3!
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