Teaching Kids To Ride

Hi folks. We’ve been asked many times for advice and tips on the topic of getting young kids onto a bicycle, and I thought I’d go “long form” once more in an attempt to do the question justice. Gordo was with us a month ago when our daughter finally learned how to ride her pedal bike…

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First, some disclaimers:

- Every kid is different. What worked for us may not work for you.

- There are many approaches to this, and if you keep at any one of them, eventually it will probably work.

- We only have one kid, so we are not experts. The internet is full of them, though, and they’re all ready & eager to tell you how to raise your kid, or to start a fight with you about helmets and knee pads and god knows whatall. We think you’re awesome just like you are, and we’d never do that to you. You complete us.

- Having a full compliment of our own genetic material, our kid is naturally exceptional in every regard, and thus the reader should not be disheartened when his or her less spectacular offspring fails to vault into the world of bicycle ridership so effortlessly.    -ahem-

Her awesome 4th birthday bike, a Joppo that's still a little too big for her.

Her awesome 4th birthday bike, a Joppo that’s still a little too big. Her homie Polar Bear is coming along for the ride.

Second, my specific problems with training wheels:

- While they do allow kids to work on one half of the learning pie needed to ride a real bike (how to operate pedals and a brake), they do not let kids figure out what I consider the harder half (balance). Training wheel bikes handle nothing like a real bike, and I cannot for the life of me see how a kid is supposed to figure out how to turn a real bike on something that cannot lean, even though I somehow did it as a kid.

- They’re very easy to tip over if the pavement isn’t level, or if there are cracks, or if the kid turns remotely sharply while underway. You wind up with your hand on their back 99% of the ride, pulling them upright as they start to tip over again.

So for us, training wheels turned out to be more trouble than they were worth. I know I had them as a kid and I don’t recall having problems, but in our experience now as parents, they were a massive hassle. Some people seem to love them, though, so… -shrug-

Next, Our Approach, And Why We Liked It

Here’s the short version: We got her a balance bike very early, and pretty much skipped training wheels. She then hopped on a 12″ wheeled kid bike and was able to ride it on her first try.

We certainly didn’t come up with that approach, but we did give it a shot, and it worked out well for us. And now that she’s able to ride a regular bike, I can see some particular aspects of what we did that, in hindsight, probably helped us a lot. So in no particular order, here they are:

Start Too Early

2.5 years old, Memorial Drive closed on a Sunday

We got her Skuut balance bike waaaaay too early, when she wasn’t even 2 yet. Call it an “aspirational” purchase. But even before she could ride it, she still liked to stand over it. It was hers, and ownership is a strong concept for most toddlers (to put it nicely). She looked forward to the day that she could ride it so much, and it was a powerful motivation to buffer her short fuse against the frustrations of those first attempts that inevitably don’t work. When she wanted to throw the damned bike down and give up, she’d tap into the vast reserves of Bike Lust she had built up and soldier on.

Put A Basket On It

Bike nasket, held on with 2 zip ties, purchased at some big box store for $5.99.

Matchymatchy

Not only does it make her bike look more like Mommy and Daddy’s, a little basket on the front of her bike also allows her to bring a dolly or stuffed animal along for a ride. Or, she can actually carry back a few small items from the store… most kids LOVE to help. We found this floral plastic thing at some big box store just before Halloween, and realized it would be perfect for her bike with a few zip ties. Redneck skills to the rescue!

Take It On Your Walks

Street Festival on Huron Ave.

Street Festival on Huron Ave.

We often have her ride her balance bike with us on walks. Grocery store, neighborhood playground, whatever. It means we get to walk quicker and farther than we could with her on foot, and she gets lots of practice. She also got to learn how to navigate through crowded sidewalks without running into people.

 

Talk About Safety

"I wanna hit the button"

“I wanna hit the button”

One of the other perks to having her ride her balance bike when we’re on walks is that with every driveway and street crossing, you get to teach and reinforce the street safety habits that will eventually save her life when she’s riding on her own. Make it fun, make it a game, but either way make it happen! This is a lot easier at the slower pace of a balance bike on a walk, and the repititions over many short trips help her learn.

 

Find That Perfect Little Downhill

Learning to coast downhill.

Learning to coast downhill.

The real meat of learning that you get with a balance bike is exactly that — balance. It starts with them just walking it along, but soon they get to the stage where they pick up their feet on the downhills — and it’s in the free coasting down hills that they attain enough speed to steer a bike the way you do above 2 or 3 miles an hour… that is, by leaning the bike into turns instead of steering directly with the handle bars. Initially they’re terrified of downhills, but once you find a short and gentle little hill like in this picture, they figure it all out. Her face there says it all – she was just learning to coast, and it’s thrilling. But to get there, she needed a short enough hill at about the right pitch so she could go at it over and over, and let her feet up earlier and earlier, until she wasn’t afraid anymore. Now she goes bombing around the whole circle as fast as she can. There’s even one stretch going to her school that has 30+ seconds of all downhill, and she carves perfect S-curves maneuvering around obstacles and onto the bike path. Pushing themselves on flat ground, they can’t learn this stuff.

 

Skip The “Take The Pedals Off” Trick

Not fun for her, but fun for us!

Matt goes for the gold at the first ever Leavenworth MiniBike Olympics

Several times, we tried the trick we’d read about elsewhere, where you take a 12″ pedal bike’s pedals off and let them ride it like balance bike. There are two physical problems with this method that you will face, and a psychological one you might face if your kid is anything like mine. Physical problems: pedal bike geometry is different from balance bikes, so the seat is much higher off the ground on the pedal bike. Her feet were barely be able to touch the ground, making propulsion problematic even if her balance was good. Second, her legs still hit the crank arms (which are NOT easy to remove unlike the pedals), and when the cranks get rotated even slightly backwards, they engage the coaster brake. The psychological problem was that our daughter saw me removing the pedals and flipped out. She was SURE she could ride with pedals (she couldn’t), and that I had robbed her of her chance to prove it. When she tried it and failed, I got tears, a sobbing fit, and a complete meltdown that ended any sort of can-do-ism. So my buddy Matt and I downed a few good beers and decided to have Mini Bike Olympics. ……Lemons, lemonade.

Figure Out How To Carry It On Your Bike

Vassar Street cycle track

Vassar Street cycle track

I say this one because if you’re already bikey people, then you’ll really enjoy letting your kid bike in other places besides right around your house. We would often bungee her Skuut onto one of our bikes, put her on the other bike, and go cruising around on weekend days. When we got somewhere safe, we’d let her ride along with us for a little while. She wasn’t always thrilled about stopping and getting back on our bikes, but she managed, and it was worth it. So get creative with the bungee cords and see if you can make this happen.

Find A Running Track For The BIG DAY

Running track at Danehy Park, Cambridge

Running track at Danehy Park, Cambridge

And finally, once you’re ready to get out and try letting them actually pedal a real bike, we recommend trying to find a soft, flat running track somewhere. Usually one of the parks or schools will have one. It’s nice to give them a shove to get them started, then be able to run along with them. And if they fall, it doesn’t hurt much on that surface. Another tip: Run in front of them, not behind or beside them. They’ll be so incredibly proud of themselves that they will want to look at you to make sure you see what they’re accomplishing, perishing the thought that you might somehow be missing it. In doing so, they’ll turn their heads to the side, likely causing a crash (or two, or three). Trot along in front so they look ahead. As with all balancing 2-wheeled vehicles, they tend to go where the pilot is looking, so you want to get the little bugger looking forward any way you can.

That’s it. Hope this helps. No comment fights, or I’ll turn this car around.

A brave new world

A brave new world