When is the best time to teach a child to ride a bike? When you sell bikes for kids, you get asked this question a lot.
I've learned to be careful when talking about parenting on the internet. To be clear, I'm not here to tell parents that there are certain bicycle developmental milestone ages. Nor am I here to tell parents that other approaches to teaching a child to ride a bike are incorrect. I'm just giving some guidance based on my own experience working with kids on bikes.
When should I get my child a balance bike?: 1½ to 2 years old
When should I get my child a pedal bike?: If a child is balancing well on a balance bike, they can progress to a pedal bike as young at 2½. If you skipped the balance bike phase, see the next question.
I never got my child a balance bike. Now my child is X years old. Should I get a balance bike or go straight to a pedal bike?: Children younger than 3½ are often better off if they are given a chance to learn balance on a dedicated balance bike prior to starting on a pedal bike. Children older than 3½ can often learn balance on a pedal bike with the pedals removed.
I'm an advocate of teaching children to ride bikes by first focusing on teaching balance. For kids 1½ to 3½ we do this by using a balance bike like our Alpha Zero. For bigger kids we use a pedal bike with the pedals removed. The goal is to teach children to balance on a bike with no pedals. Children start by walking/running with the bike underneath them, and with practice, begin to lift their feet off of the ground. Once they have mastered balancing a bike with no pedals, we put them on a bike with pedals and teach them to ride.
So, in that light we can look at the process of learning to ride as having two phases:
Parents often ask when they should teach their kid to ride a bike. In my mind, however, the real question is when can you start working with your child on a balance bike (specifically, when to start with Step One on the Balance Method). I put the emphasis on learning a fundamental skill (balance). And I see learning that skill as a process that for some children can take time.
Many of today's parents learned to ride a bike when a parent picked a moment to remove the training wheels from a bike and encouraged them to be brave. In that era, the emphasis was on working through a moment that was scary for the child and frustrating/exhausting for the parent.
Balance bikes have changed that. They allow children to learn balance at a comfortable pace. It is a process that can be started very young and at the child's own pace.
While it varies from one child to another, most children are ready to start experimenting with a balance bike somewhere between 1½ and 2½ years old. If you want your child to have the best opportunity to learn to ride young, a smart strategy is to have a balance bike in your house and available for them as soon as they can (1) confidently run and (2) physically fit on a balance bike (sit in the saddle with both heels on the ground and a slight bend in the knees). Not all children will take to the balance bike right away, and some won't take to it for years, but if the balance bike isn't available then they won't even have the opportunity.
So, if your child is 1½ years old, can run confidently, and can fit on a balance bike, they are ready to start working on balance. If your child is older, there is really no reason to delay getting them started on balance.
There are two prerequisites for learning to ride a pedal bike:
The child must have the strength to hold the bike up unassisted. The child also needs to have enough leg strength to spin the pedals while riding. If a child has a bit of difficulty accelerating, you can try just giving him a little help by gently pushing on his back. Try to push the young rider in a way where you aren’t aiding or interfering with their balance – just use a flat palm on the rider's back.
For some very young kids, pedaling can challenge their coordination. We have a bit of a cheat – we have a 14” bike on a bicycle trainer that we put kids on to get them spinning well. If you don’t have a bike trainer, and you are strong enough, you can have him sit on the bike while you lift the rear wheel off the ground (grab the bike by the saddle – and make sure the saddle and seat post are well attached before you do this). The idea is to just let the young rider learn to spin the pedals without worrying about moving or balancing.
While you are at it, have the rider practice taking his feet off the pedals, letting them hang, then getting back on the pedals and immediately start spinning quickly. (Some kids with great balance struggle to find the pedals and get pedaling quickly, which causes them to run out of momentum before they really have a chance to pedal.)
Finally, remember that learning to ride a bike can be an awkward experience. A little bit of patience can go a long way.