This week we celebrate Bike to School Day…a day that celebrates the marvelous, fun, relaxing activity of bike riding by inspiring today’s youth to ride a bike. The day was created by the League of American Bicyclists to encourage kids to skip the car ride and bike to school for both the exercise and fun. The thought is that a lifelong love for cycling can begin simply by teaching children to ride and by introducing them to the fun and excitement of the activity.
A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about my own experience learning to ride a bike as a child as well as some of the general ways riding bikes have changed over the past couple of decades. Today we’ll actually break down some of the steps you can take to help teach your child to ride a bike.
How to begin
First and foremost, it takes coordination to ride a bike. Remember back when I said that it’s important that your child crawls…this is one of the reasons why. It takes bilateral coordination (moving both sides of the body at the same time, in this case in opposition of each other) to pedal a bike and balance to well, balance on the bike.
These skills typically show up between the ages of 3-6 years old. I know, this is a pretty big range. But we provide ranges for a reason. Some kids, like my friend’s child, will be able to ride a 2-wheeler independently by 3 ½. (I frequently have to remind my friend that his child is advanced and MOST kids do not learn to ride a 2-wheeler this young). Other kids don’t really learn to ride a bike until they are 5 or even 6. And that’s perfectly fine.
A child needs to have adequate strength to push the pedals. If they aren’t used to the movement, this action may take a little getting used to. In addition to the physical aspect of propelling a bike, your child needs to be mentally ready and simply want to learn. They need to be confident in their own abilities to try this challenging activity.
Before you even get your child on the bike, make sure they have a helmet that fits them. There are plenty of resources online to assist you in finding a helmet for your child and ensuring that it is the proper fit. I know we didn’t always wear helmets when we rode bikes, but times have changed. Your child should wear a helmet every time they get on their bike – it doesn’t matter if they are simply going down the street or on a long ride in the park. Helmets are worn to protect us from serious head injury.
In addition, make sure your child’s bike is the correct size. They should be able to stand over the top tube with both feet planted firmly on the ground, without making contact with the bike. If you’re like some people I know you’re probably thinking “Isn’t it better to get them a bike that’s a little too big so that they can grow in to it?” My simple answer, No.
The size of the bike can have a great impact on a kid’s ability to manage and control a bike when they are first learning to ride. A slightly small bike is actually preferable in this situation as many kids are fearful of falling when they are first learning. Having the ability to simply place their feet on the ground can have a huge impact on their self esteem and their internal belief that they will be able to succeed.
Ready, set, glide!
Many of you may have learned to ride a bike using training wheels. Although you can still do this, it’s really not the preferred method of teaching. Today, we have gliders…basically a bike, but without the pedals. The seat of a glider is lower than a typical bike which allows a child to place their feet directly on the ground. Kids learn to push off their feet to scoot and then eventually glide.
As a child becomes more comfortable on the glider they begin to lift their feet either in the air or place them on pegs, giving them the true sensation of coasting. Using a glider to teach a child to balance can be much more effective then using training wheels. Training wheels can be great for teaching a child to pedal…but they do not teach balance.
So, you’ve done the prep, you have all of the equipment, your child knows how to coast on their glider and the time has come to transfer them to the bike. Now what?
Put your child on the bike and support them from behind. You can support your child by either holding them under their armpits or by holding on to the back of their shirt or jacket. Do not hold on to the handlebars as that is how your child steers the bike. They need to be able to feel the movement of the bike and learn to respond to the motion.
As you support them, make sure they can find the pedals with their feet, while still looking forward. Also, are they able to get on and off the bike without falling? If not, now’s a great time to help them learn this skill.
Finally, does the bike have coaster (foot) brakes or hand brakes? If they have coaster brakes, support them on the bike while they gently learn to press back on the brakes. Continue to support them until they can do this without wobbling. If the bike has hand brakes, have your child walk the bike while holding the handlebar and brakes. Teach them to press the brakes to stop as they are walking alongside the bike.
When do I let go?
Teaching a child to ride a bike is a big adulting moment. Sometime we can get too excited and caught up in the moment that we forget to look for the signs that our child is ready. Once your child has the physical and mental capabilities to be able to ride the bike, take a step back.
Remember, riding a bike should be fun and relaxing. This is a very difficult task to learn and as adults we often forget how challenging the process may have been for us. Go at their pace. Follow their lead. If they want to take it one step at a time, that’s ok. If they want to jump on without your support, that’s ok too.
While we no longer need to run along side them as they learn to pedal (I’m thinking of every TV show and movie scene right now where a child learns to ride a bike), we still need to be there for our kids. Sometimes the emotional encouragement can give them the confidence they need to try. You know that they are strong enough and have the ability. Try not to push them too hard. Support them, encourage them and then let them be. 😊