Learning to ride a bike is one of life’s great milestones. It is a promotion into the “big-kids” club that for many, will bring the first taste of freedom and accomplishment.
Exciting as learning to ride a bike may be, it can also be a daunting and stressful experience.
The experts at ByK Bikes share some of their top tips on making your child's transition onto two-wheels as safe and easy as possible.
The Five Essential Skills
When it comes to riding a bike, there are five essential skills your child will learn – balance, steering, pedalling, braking and shifting/changing, gears. That’s a lot to learn, especially for kids aged between 1.5 and 4 who will typically only learn one motor skill at a time! Try not to teach all these skills at once and instead focus on one at a time.
With balance and then steering the obvious first skills to focus on, balance bikes are a great option for children within this age group. Balance bikes allow children to become masters of their own domain before moving onto new skills. Some kids will feel intimated and may find the idea of a ‘teacher’ pushing them a bit too much to handle.
Letting them learn at their own pace and in their own time will benefit both the rider, and take some of the pressure off the so called ‘teacher’ too!
If you find yourself shouting out numerous instructions all at once, stop!
Calls of “look up, steer straight, keep pedalling, use your hands to brake!” are only going to confuse your poor child and make the whole experience a whole lot more difficult than it needs to be! By taking the time to teach each skill separately, your child will have a better chance of managing them all together when they are ready.
While there is no denying teaching your child to ride a bike will take a lot of patience, encouragement and probably a few unsuccessful attempts, these 10 tips can help to make the experience a little bit easier for everyone involved:
1. Safety First: Check bike setup, clothing and helmet:
Making sure you have the correct sized bike for your child is fairly obvious and you'll probably realize that if it's too big, they will quickly lose confidence.
Relying on training wheels can often create more instability than you think and reduce confidence even more so.
For a perfect bicycle fit, follow these guidelines:
Sit on the saddle and rest the balls of both feet on the ground.
Straddle the top bar with a comfortable clearance and with both feet flat on the ground.
Reach the handlebars with a slight bend in the arms when sitting on the seat. If there are handbrakes, your child should be able to grasp them and apply enough pressure to stop the bike.
When first starting out, you may want to lower the seat even more so that their feet are flat on the ground entirely, not just the balls of the feet.
This will give them more confidence straight away.
Make sure your child has comfortable clothes that won't hinder them getting on or off the bike.
A skirt is not great as it can get stuck around the saddle. Baggy pants or wide legged trousers might also hinder riding.
Check shoes are on securely and aren't going to slip off quickly. Check shoe laces are fastened.
Finally, the helmet - always wear it, even in the backyard at home! And make sure it is fastened correctly and fits properly!
2. Learn Balance Speed Without Pedals:
Consider taking the pedals off to learn what it feels like to balance the bike while having the safety of planting your feet to the ground quickly to stop.
Let your child 'walk' and then 'run' with the bike. At first, they may not even want to sit on the seat and instead will straddle the top bar of the bike, but once they feel comfortable they'll naturally sit down and begin to move their legs faster to reach a fast walking pace.
Tell them to begin to take 'giant' strides with their feet. "Fee Fi Fo Fum" is usually enough to let them know what you mean (and be the giant behind them saying this - the sheer fun of pretending to be getting away from the giant will almost surely make them pick up their pace!)
Once they are taking big strides they will inevitably be starting to feel balance as they will be having moments of both feet off the ground at the same time.
Try also getting them to scoot or propel with both legs at the same time (like a Kangaroo bouncing) - forcing them to lift both feet off for the duration of the legs having to come back to the front of the bike.
During this process of 'running' with the bike, remind the child to stop by putting one foot down on the ground, or use the hand brakes on the bike if possible.
Some kids will keep their pedals off for 30 minutes, a few hours, a few days, even a few months.
Let the child dictate to you when they are ready to progress to the next level of learning.
Having no pedals can be lots of fun for a lot of kids and all they need to get to the park or up to the shops, alongside their walking parent/adult carer.
If you are still unsure about using training wheels, then this advice from a cycling dad who has taught his kids how to ride might help:
"Training wheels transform a bicycle. It's no longer a bike. It's a machine you can pedal along (sometimes, when the rear wheel doesn't get 'marooned' and spin in the air because the training wheels are up on some uneven ground). Kids sit differently on them. They learn differently on them. But, most-importantly, they turn differently on them. And everything they learn, is counter-productive to being able to balance."
3. Choose your own adventure…Steering the bike:
Very little needs to be said here – steering will be wobbly at first but it doesn’t take long for kids to get the hang of it.
4. Put the pedals back on and get moving:
Now that your child has learnt balance, and has gotten the hang of steering, its time to put the pedals back on and help them master real riding.
Find somewhere that has a slight roll and a soft landing - a small mound/hill at the local park is a great spot.
If you have removed the pedals previously, you may like to re-attach just one at a time so your child still has the ability to stabilise using one foot. This will work for some kids, but may just confuse others!
As a parent, try to not lean right over the child and bike with your own hands on their handlebars - it seems natural to want to stabilise them yourself in this way but it will hinder their own take-off and probably do damage to your back or get your feet run over!
Put one hand on their shoulder or back to stablise them and another on the very back of their seat to propel with.
Encourage your child to hold the hand-brake when they get onto the bike and keep it there until they are ready to propel. Continue to help them stabilise, count down and wait for them to get both feet on the pedals before you push them off.
5. Braking- The art of stopping without falling
If your kid has learnt, or is learning to ride on a balance bike, or a bike without the pedals, its safe to assume that they will probably be using their feet as the first form of braking.
But it’s a good idea, even if they haven't learnt on a balance bike first, for your little one to learn how to stop with their feet. It might sound counter-intuitive but you want them to know what it feels like as it will be their initial reaction for quite some time to use their feet on the ground, more often than their foot brakes or hand brakes.
Foot-Braking: This can be a 'touch and go' situation for kids - literally and psychologically! Many kids will pedal back as an instinctive way of attempting to slow down, not actually wanting to stop. So they can appear to stop-start their riding, much like a learner driver in a manual car! Some bicycle trainers actually recommend disabling the foot brake altogether!
Hand-braking: Encourage your child to use the hand-brakes as much as possible. They are more efficient at braking safely and children will have more control over simply slowing down the bike when they need to. To get them started, get them to get off the bike, and walk with it - with both hands on the handlebars - get them to pull the brake levers on and off. This way they will learn the feeling of compression and the result of how quickly the bike stops. They'll feel a lot more confident of doing it once they are back in the saddle.
6. Choose a safe area to learn:
It goes without saying- kids will need to be in a safe area away from cars, other bicycle commuters, and other children who might be playing nearby with balls or running across your path.
Choose grassed areas and preferably with small slopes.
Once they are confident with braking, having that little bit of momentum on a slope will allow the child to focus on steering and getting those feet on the pedals in time without simply falling over!
Going down a very small grassy slope will also allow the child to feel 'balance' very early on.
7. Consider the teacher:
If you are concerned you're not the right teacher, as the parent, then consider someone else who the child trusts but will behave for and listen to better.
As parents, we know all too well the scenario's of hearing our kids behaving soooo much better when they are at someone else's house/at school/with friends parents, etc.
Also consider peers who already know how to ride - having them come out on their bikes so your own child can watch and learn will make a huge difference and propel them to learn faster because they just want to have as much fun as the other kids!
8. Check the seat height again:
As your child begins to ride more confidentially, consider if the seat height is still correct - you may have had it slightly lower for the learning to ride period, but maybe it could be heightened to be at an optimum position for comfortable riding.
As your child grows, you can raise the seat post and handlebar stem according to the owner’s manual limits.
9. Consider a bike skills course:
As mentioned earlier, some kids just learn better when taught by someone other than the parent. If you haven't got friends or relatives who can help teach, consider a learn to ride course.
Even once your kid has got the basic skills of riding taken care of, an extra-curricular bike skills course can not only be a lot of fun, but also give your child important skills in managing different terrains, different situations and understanding more complex ideas of risk, reactions and rules.
To find a bike skills course near you, just Google search your area for bike skills course operators.
10. Safety first, and last!
Before your child ever leaves for a ride, ALWAYS make sure the helmet is fastened correctly. They do save lives and prevent very nasty injuries!
Encourage your child to ride on the footpath wherever possible. If they do need to venture onto the road during their ride, never let them do so on their own - adult supervision is required.
Teach them the importance of stopping at driveways to check for cars coming in or out.
Teach your children road safety and basic road rules all the time.
The more you talk about scenarios of traffic conditions and what is expected of a cyclist to ride in traffic, the more they will absorb and learn.
However, children under the age of 10 (approximate) won't be able to fully assess, negotiate and react safely in traffic all the time.
It is recommended that children should not ride on the road until they are 12 or 13 years of age.
Remember, there is no optimal time for a kid to learn how to ride a bike.
As with anything a kid learns - they have their own 'timeline' of when they will be able to achieve their goals.
Don't cause undue stress or anxiety on the child or yourself as the trainer to get it right too fast. Your little one will know when they are ready!
So, take it slow and let yourself enjoy this exciting milestone in your child’s life!