The Best Way to Teach a Child to Ride a Bike
Chances are, those training wheels are just getting in the way
Training wheels have long been a go-to for teaching kids to learn to ride a bike. But while training wheels guarantee a new rider won’t topple, they can interfere with a very important lesson — how to balance on a bike. In fact, training wheels can make learning to ride more difficult if they aren’t used correctly.
“Many parents attach the wheels and leave it at that, rather than raising them incrementally as their child becomes better at balancing,” explains Lee Uehara, education manager at CityBikeCoach.com. Another common mistake is using a single wheel on one side, which renders the bike completely unstable.
If not with training wheels, what’s the best and safest way to teach a kid to master bike riding? Here’s how to set a child up for two-wheeler success.
Have a fit
Your child should learn to ride on a bike that’s the right size. If you’re buying her a new one, don’t be tempted to purchase a bicycle that she can “grow into” (or put her on an older sibling’s hand-me-down). She won’t be able to control a bike that’s too big or too heavy.
Bicycles are measured according to wheel diameter, not seat height or frame size. For most children ages 4 to 6, a diameter of 14 inches is a good starting point. To make sure, though, take your child to a bike shop and have an experienced salesperson help you get the fit right.
Instead of grabbing pliers to attach training wheels to a conventional bike, use them to remove the pedals. Or, start your kid off on a pedal-free push-bike, or balance bike, which is expressly designed for newbie riders to practice balance. “Balance bikes have revolutionized how kids learn to ride, making the process quicker and more enjoyable,” says Shane MacRhodes, program manager at Safe Routes to School in Eugene, Oregon.
A balance bike doesn’t have crank arms sticking out (they just get in the way). They also weigh less and are easier for small kids to manage than a bike that’s had the pedals removed.
Whichever type of bike your choose, adjust the seat properly. Have your child stand over the crossbar and then lower the seat so that he can comfortably sit on it with his feet resting flat on the ground.
Related: 5 Gadgets to Make Biking Safer
Set up for safety
Besides the right bike, your child will need a properly fitted helmet. It should sit level and snug on the head, two finger-widths above the eyebrows.
To protect the rest of your kid’s body, dress her in “clothing that covers her knees and elbows, and shoes that have coverage and traction — sneakers, instead of sandals,” says Uehara. Leggings or skinny jeans are less likely to snag on crank arms or get caught in wheel spokes than loose, wide-legged pants.
Find a smooth, paved surface for the first riding lessons, away from cars or other obstacles . Keep off the grass, because in order to glide while balancing your child’s bike will need to gain a bit of speed. An empty parking lot, tennis or basketball courts are all good spots to try.
Ready, set, ride
“Have your kid start by walking the bike, then scooting it, moving up to a slow run. He can pick up the pace when he feels ready,” MacRhodes says.
When he’s comfortable with the feel of the bike moving under him, have him lift up his feet and glide for short distances. As this becomes easy for him, encourage him to work up to longer stretches. From there you can move to a slight incline so he can practice rolling downhill and balancing at the same time.
If you’re using a conventional bike, once your child has mastered staying balanced while rolling slightly downhill, put the pedals back on. “This way he can get some real speed without having to pedal and still focus on mastering staying balanced.” From there he can add in wide, easy turns by turning the handlebars.
The last step in learning to ride a bike is pedaling. Have your child place his feet on the pedals and give the wheels a turn — and then two turns. If he does a few in a row, he’s actually riding the bike.