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" 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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: