Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike by 3½ Years Old with The Balance Method™

by Jacob Rheuban October 29, 2017

Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike by 3½ Years Old with The Balance Method™

Teaching a kid to ride a bike should be a joyful experience.  But all too frequently, it's an experience marred with frustration, disinterest, and even fear.  At Prevelo Bikes we interact with a lot of young riders and their parents.  We have seen both the joy and the frustration, and we think there is a method that will maximize the joy and minimize the frustration.  We call it The Balance Method because the method prioritizes learning balance.

The Traditional Method

The "traditional method" is the one most parents are familiar with.  The kid starts out on a bike with training wheels.  One day the training wheels come off and parent chases kid around a parking lot or cul-de-sac hoping the kid will quickly grasp the skill required to balance a bike (a common variation of this method is to ween the child off of training wheels by slowly raising the training wheels).  This is how most of today's parents learned to ride when they were kids.  It can work.  But it requires a good amount of courage on the part of the child and patience and physical effort on the part of the parent. As a result children, and parents frequently mutually throw their hands up in frustration.  The bike goes in the garage, sometimes indefinitely.  And a bike aging in a garage is a sad thing.  Seriously, poke me in the eye before you make us look at a dusty lonely garaged kid's bike*.
(*Please don't actually poke me in the eye.)

A Better Training Tool

The technique of using training wheels as an introduction to riding a bike is around 100 years old.  But training wheels don't teach balance.  And for most young riders, balance is the most challenging part of learning to ride. We wrote about this here.  But this isn't a closely held secret.  The idea that training wheels are an aging training mechanism has been well circulated, including by Time Magazine, Slate,  NBC and The Washington Post.

Balance bikes (bikes with no pedals and no training wheels like our own Alpha Zero) teach balance.  Parents are catching on to this and equipping kids with balance bikes instead of bikes with training wheels.  But not much has been written on how to introduce a young rider to a balance bike, or how to transition a rider from a balance bike to a pedal bike.

Start Young

There are tools available today that weren't available 25 years ago.  Balance bikes like the Alpha Zero and small pedal bikes like the Alpha One and Alpha Two make learning to ride easier and make it possible (and even better) for children to learn to ride at a young age.

There's a school of thought that introducing children to certain skills earlier makes learning the skill easier.  For example, many parents introduce children to swimming early.  The thought is that getting children wet young tends to reduce the overall fear they may have of water.  There could certainly be disagreement about the benefits of getting children in the water early (I'm not here to take sides on that and I'm not a swim instructor or a child psychologist or a swim psychologist - I just make kids bikes and eat tacos).  But the fact that many parents do in fact get children in the water as young as 6 months old, and are willing to spend time, energy, and money to do so is salient.  At Prevelo Bikes, our experience teaching kids to ride has taught us that, generally, getting kids on two wheels young makes learning easier.  

Of course, every kid is different.  Some kids don't take to riding early.  And parents shouldn't be frustrated or concerned if their child doesn't develop riding skills at a young age.  But giving children opportunities to get on two wheels at a young age has little downside.  On the upside, by starting young, a child has the best chance at a smooth and fun filled learning to ride experience.

 

Step 1: Intro to the Balance Bike & Learning to Coast on the Balance Bike

When to Start: ~18 months old to 2.5 years old.
Goal:  Coast 15+ feet on a balance bike with both feet off the ground.

  1. Get a balance bike like our own Alpha Zero (and a helmet!).  The important things to look for here are (1) the bike should weigh less than 10 pounds and (2) the rider must be able to plant both feet firmly on the ground while in the saddle.  Adjust the saddle height so that when seated in the saddle with a slight bend in the knees both feet are firmly planted on the ground (heels on the ground).
  2. To get started, the rider must be able to walk with the balance bike between their legs and their hands on the handlebars.  At first this might look like an awkward wobble.  But over time, the rider will move their weight to the saddle and start to push and glide.  If the rider can't confidently hold the bike upright between their legs while standing still the bike is either too heavy or too tall, or the rider isn't ready yet.
  3. The goal here is to get the rider to work up to being able to coast for 15 or more feet with their feet off of the ground.  More accurately, a rider is ready to graduate to the next step when they can get moving on a balance bike and ride the momentum of the bike with their feet off of the ground until the momentum runs out.  With regular opportunities to enjoy their balance bike, many young riders can become confident coasters between 2 and 2.5 years old.
Balance Bike FitA balance bike should be fitted so that the rider can plant both feet firmly on the ground while in the saddle

Common Obstacles

Rider Disinterest:  Many young riders show disinterest in their balance bike.  To articulate what a lot of first time balance bike riders are thinking: "I can't ride this thing.  It keeps tipping over.  This doesn't make any sense."  Our favorite trick here it to get them around other kids riding.  Kids motivate each other and serve as examples for each other in ways parents sometimes cannot.  If your child is approaching 3 years old and is still not showing interest in his or her balance bike, it might be worth trying to get them around other kids riding bikes for "bike play dates."  There is one important rule for bike play dates:  Everyone is on two wheeled bikes.  No training wheels, no tricycles.

Difficulty Coasting:  Some riders have difficulty getting enough speed to practically start to learn to balance the bike.  If your rider has trouble gaining momentum, bring them to a location with a slight decline so they can use gravity to help build speed.  Many driveways have enough elevation loss and length to work fine here (as long as the road isn't busy and is safe for the child to ride into).  Grass hills are also great for this because the grass provides a little bit of padding if the rider falls (just pay attention to the resistance the grass puts on the rider - if the rider is small or the grass is tall, the rider might not be able to build enough inertia to get rolling).

 

Step 2:  Learning to Coast on a Pedal Bike with the Pedals Removed

When to start:  As soon as the rider can coast for 15+ feet on the balance bike.
Goal:  Coast 15+ feet on a pedal bike with the pedals removed.

  1. Get a pedal bike.  It's important that the bike be lightweight (less than 16 pounds with the pedals) and that the rider be able to get the heels of both feet comfortably on the ground while seated in the saddle with the legs fully extended.
  2. Remove the pedals.
  3. Let the rider use the pedal bike as a balance bike.  Pedal bikes ride significantly different from balance bikes.  They are bigger, heavier and have mechanical parts that the rider has to work around.  The goal here is for the rider to acclimate to those changes.
How To Remove Bike Pedals
Removing the pedals from most bikes is fairly simple. Just use a 15mm wrench and loosen the pedals. Note that on most bikes the left pedal is reverse threaded and must be turned clockwise to loosen.

 

Step 3:  Learning to Coast with Feet on Pedals

When to start:  As soon as the rider can coast for 15+ feet on the pedal bike with the pedals removed.
Goal:  Coast 10+ feet on a pedal bike with (1) pedals on the bike and (2) feet resting on the pedals.

  1. Put the pedals back on the bike.
  2. Have the rider push off and start coasting.  When the rider is coasting get them to rest their feet on the pedals.
  3. The goal is to have the rider confidently coasting with feet on the pedals.  Some riders will have trouble building momentum because the pedals get in their way of their feet.  Because of this, we don't focus much on distance in this step.  We simply want to see that the rider can get some momentum and get feet on the pedals, since that's exactly what they will have to do to start pedaling a bike.  If you want to give the rider a chance to build some momentum and really coast with feet on the pedals, experiment with placing the rider on a declined surface (such as a driveway).

 

Step 4:  Learning to Pedal!

When to start:  As soon as the rider can coast for 10+ feet with (1) pedals on the bike and (2) feet resting on the pedals.
Goal:  Pedal a two wheeled bike and become a rider forever!

  1. This is the moment.  Get your camera ready!
  2. Have the rider push off, start coasting and rest their feet on the pedals.
  3. Queue the rider to pedal (sometimes an excited yell of "PEDAL!" gets the job done).
  4. Watch your rider's life change before your eyes.  Enjoy this moment.  Take and share pictures!
kid riding bike

Common Obstacles

Trouble Pedaling: Some riders have some initial difficulty figuring out how to pedal. There are a couple of things you can do here to help them out:

  1. Show them by example by letting them watch you pedal a bike.
  2. Let them sit on the bike and pedal while you hold the bike steady and lift the rear wheel off the ground (this takes a bit of strength).
  3. If they are pedaling backwards and activating the coaster brake, consider a bike with hand brakes and an available freewheel like the Alpha One or Alpha Two.
Jacob Rheuban
Jacob Rheuban


1 Response

Aaron lal
Aaron lal

September 10, 2019

Thanks for sharing the post! You have shared nice tips on how to fix my bike. I liked your post and will recommend others also.

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