Bike Week 2022 is 6-12 June, so get your children cycling and out and about as a family.
Way back in 2015 there was a proud mummy moments. N learnt to ride a pedal bike, and took to it straight away. If you work through the phases, it doesn’t take long to teach kids to ride a bike the easy way. Although obviously some children are more keen and faster to learn than others. Confidence and balance are the key things.
We thought N would be ready age 3 1/2, in the summer, but the pedal bike he had was just too heavy for him to pedal. His little legs needed more strength. So we had to wait until he was 4 and the weather turned better. Then he was off with little encouragement.
I remember learning to ride mine (having had it since I was 5 and refusing to try it) at age 7, because we moved house and all the other children on our estate could ride one, so I had to learn too. The only problem was that I couldn’t turn corners, so I fell over a lot! It’s not been like that with N, so I thought I’d help other parents struggling to get their children to ride a bike, and share what we did.
In 2018 a YouGov survey suggested that a fifth of children were unable to ride a bike. While this seems madness to me, I do know quite a few people whose children didn’t learn until they were in double digits for various reasons. Those in urban areas are less likely to be able to cycle due – not helped by lack of space to keep a bike, and lack of places to cycle. Nowadays more councils are making cycle ‘parks’ and ‘road’ set ups available. Hopefully these initiatives continue.
Some children just take to self-propelling vehicles really easily. I know N had no problems automatically knowing what to do on a scooter, learnt to pedal a trike with no problems and got on his EzyRoller and was working it straight off. But his younger cousin takes a lot longer to learn these things, and while N really loves bikes and scooters, his cousin isn’t fussed, even with his own brand new sparkling bike.
It definitely helps if your child likes these type of toys. But if not there’s a lot you can do to help. These steps go through what we did from baby/toddler stage, but from point 2 is relevant for any age child.
How to teach kids to ride a bike
And yes, it can be done easily and without any tumbles.
1. Starting out – make it the norm
Even at a young age, give them wheels to play with and explore. How many babies or toddlers are obsessed with wheeling toys across the floor in front of them, or love fiddling with pushchair wheels? Lots. So make self-propelling toys and vehicles part of their lives. If you enjoy cycling or scooting, or they’ve older siblings who enjoy them, then it can also encourage an interest in wanting to be like mum, dad or siblings.
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2. Balance is key
As children we didn’t have stabilisers – my mum didn’t agree with them, thinking that they didn’t encourage balancing because most children would end up leaning on one or the other of them. We went from a trike to bike. So I really wanted N to do the same and not have stabilisers. Luckily I heard about balance bikes…and that verified everything that I believed about learning to balance and stabilisers not being a great idea.
So step 2 is definitely, look for a balance bike*. Some are really pricy, but if you start your child off with one at the age of 2ish, then they’ll have a couple of years use out of them. If your child rides them round the house as much as N did, then cost per ride is a bargain. I loved the look of the wooden ones but they’re not as practical in my opinion as the more bike looking ones which have better adjustments for growth. The metal ones are also likely to have a lower frame which the child can step through to get on, rather than lifting one leg over the top of the saddle. Much easier for toddlers to sit on themselves.
Most balance bikes only go up to around preschool age/height, so if your child is older you can make their standard bike into a balance bike by removing the pedals. We didn’t bother removing the pedals on N’s pedal bike, he just strode around the pedals anyway to get used to the weight and different handlebars on that one vs his balance bike.
When N first got on his balance bike I thought he was doing it all wrong. He got on and stood up, walking the bike along. The first thing was encouraging him to sit down. I thought he should have been scooting both legs together until I re-looked it up, and yes, they should be stepping and pushing off right/left. Gradually they build up speed, and once they’re fast enough and have confidence they’ll start to lift their legs up and coast. This is where the balance comes in.
The aim is to get children good at balancing and keeping the bike upright.
(3. Pedalling – on another vehicle)
Obviously while a child is using a balance bike, they need to be getting used to pedalling on other vehicles – N had a smart trike*, and various ride on tractors with pedals – then the only thing they need to learn is to put the balancing and pedalling together. Many toddlers with balance bikes go on to ride pedal bikes earlier than those children who have bikes with stabilisers first.
I’m not sure turning really needs it’s own special step. If your child is used to being on a trike, balance bike or even a scooter, then they can probably turn. Especially if they’ve been using those since toddler days. (If yours use a scooter, move them to a turning steering version rather than the leaning method. It’ll make more sense for them when learning to ride a bike).
If they’re totally new to cycling, then you can get them to practise by setting out cones or markers (just a couple) for them to ride round or in and out like a chicane. They need to learn that turning is slight and smooth, rather than a sudden and extreme turn.
We’ve left out this stage, but braking is really important. Many balance bikes don’t have brakes on, and children tend to start out by putting their feet down. N struggles to reach the brakes on his bike though, so he needs to get some practise in for when he’s going faster.
I just explained the brakes, and what they do. You can then get the child to practise braking at a certain point (put a sign or item on the ground ahead), or aiming to stop by a certain point without using their feet. N’s used brakes on his Ezyroller* so I think it’s just a case of practising and remembering.
6. Return of the pedals
Annoyingly I can’t find the brilliant video that I spotted a while back which showed exactly how to do this. But it recommended putting one pedal back at a time. With that the child can’t pedal but it’s getting used to the pedal being there, before putting the second pedal on. However, putting both pedals on at once makes more sense for the child to be able to pedal straight away. I’ve seen advice saying let your children have a bike where their feet are flat on the ground, but I found N needed to be more on the balls of his feet. Not high enough for him to be unsteady, but high enough that his knees are scrunched so tight up to his chin when pedalling.
We started N on newly cut grass. Safer if they do fall, but probably harder to pedal. Aim to find a slight slope – just slight so it’ll help with them not needing to pedal quite so hard, but not so steep that they’ll go speeding down out of control (although our neighbour’s daughter loved learning down their massive steep garden at the age of 4, I wouldn’t recommend it).
Teach your child to move one pedal to the highest point, and that’s what they’ll need to push down to get started. Most parents steady the bike by holding the back of the saddle. That’s what we did, although I’ve seen information suggesting a steady hand on the shoulder or back is reassuring and more comfortable for the parent. Sometimes you do need to start them with a bit of a push off though, so the seat worked better for us.
Of course, lots of celebrations the first time they manage it, and encouraging more practise.
We’re now working on pedalling uphill, because it’s much harder on little legs. It’s much slower going and that’s where the balance comes in. After his second ride alone, he could then manage turning. And on the second day of getting his bike out, he was able to start the bike off on his own without any support.
If your children are 5+ and can grasp the balance bike striding and coasting straight away, and if they’ve already pedalled other vehicles before, there’s no reason that they wouldn’t be able to ride a bike within an hour or less.
It really is one of those magical milestones, and a definitely step up to being a big boy or girl.
How have your children coped with learning to ride bikes? Did they balance bike first? Let me know if you’ve any questions and I’ll either answer them or try and find out an answer.
If you’d prefer someone else to teach your children, you can book them onto a Bikeability course near you.
Ready for the next step and learning gears?
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