Okay, parents! I am becoming increasingly amazed at the number of children who cannot ride bicycles! This is a rite of passage of childhood and an important developmental milestone that offers your child a new type of independence and freedom — not to mention a new wonderful form of exercise. So why am I seeing so many 9-year-olds who tell me they still use training wheels?! I think perhaps we need to reassess our goals and expectations for bike-riding and maybe more importantly, our technique for teaching it.
First of all, at what age should a child be able to master riding a two-wheeled bicycle (i.e. without training wheels)? Typically, age 4 to 9, but most children can accomplish it at the earlier end of the spectrum, given appropriate instruction and encouragement.
Now, what is the best technique for teaching a child to ride? I think the Europeans have this right, and we Americans have it very wrong. Think about training wheels for a moment. Do they really “teach” a child anything? No, they simply allow a child to repeatedly make mistakes without providing any real feedback. They do allow a child to practice steering and pedaling, but they do nothing to teach balance, which is the most important concept for successful bike-riding. In Europe, they teach children to ride by using “balance bikes.” These are two-wheeled bicycles without pedals. Check out this video:
Actually you can find all sorts of videos on YouTube of two- and three-year-olds whizzing along on balance bikes! A balance bike works by allowing a child to sit on the bicycle and scoot it along “Flintstones-style” at first. As the child becomes increasingly comfortable with scooting it this way, he starts to get faster and naturally begins to raise up his feet to allow some coasting. As that becomes more and more comfortable, the child coasts further and further with his feet up and begins to move faster. The child feels the sensation of balancing the bike but doesn’t have to coordinate pedaling yet. Once the child is masterful at coasting and steering, you move the child to a two-wheeled bicycle with pedals, skipping training wheels completely. Most children can relatively quickly figure out pedaling at this stage. My own son mastered his balance bike within a couple of months at age 4, then was riding his two-wheeled bike with pedals by himself within about 15 minutes! (Trust me, we aren’t known for athletic ability in my family, so I completely credit the balance bike for his success!)
There are different brands of balance bicycles, but the three most well-known are the Mini-Glider, Kettler, and Skuut. These cost around $100 new. They can be ordered online, or they can also be purchased at the bicycle stores in town (I have never seen them at Target or Wal-Mart.) Regular bicycles can also be turned into balance bikes by removing the training wheels and pedals and lowering the seat. See below for instructional videos on how to make the conversion. And one more tip for bike-purchasing, be sure to buy a bike that fits your child well. This is one area where buying something for your child to “grow into” doesn’t work. If the bike is too big and your child can’t easily touch the ground while on the seat, then she won’t be able to master riding it. So take off the training wheels and the pedals, find a nice grassy slope, and just wait until you see the pride in your child’s eyes when he whizzes by you on his own bicycle!
P.S. Don’t forget the helmet! And I strongly recommend long-sleeves and long pants (and perhaps even elbow and knee pads) for those early stages of learning!
How to remove pedals and training wheels to make a balance bike: