Time to Take Off the Training Wheels?

kids on bikesAt what age are most children ready to learn to ride a bike? The age varies and has more to do with balance and coordination than age, itself. Children must be able to coordinate balancing, steering, pedaling and braking all at the same time. Some children can master bike riding without training as young as four years old, others are upwards of 9 years old before they can even begin to master this complex skill set. The average age is about 6 years old.

How can parents help teach balance? Many parents rely on training wheels to do what they say – train! But most parents quickly learn that children don’t benefit much, long term, from the use of training wheels. The idea of training wheels is to teach balance with a “safety” system to catch the child when their balance is off. In reality, most kids simply rely on the training wheels and never practice balance at all. Some children even find that it is easier to fall with training wheels – particularly while maneuvering around a corner – than without. If you want to give training wheels a go, set them in their furthest position up so the child requires more balance and relies on the training wheels minimally.

One time-tested method for teaching your child to ride without training wheels is the “run behind” method. This is probably how many of us learned, with fond memories. Parents can run behind their child, holding the child’s shoulders and letting go when the child is suitably balanced. It is important not to hold onto the bike, itself, as your child needs to learn to feel the balance and holding the back of the bike seat or the handlebars of the bike will impede this process. This approach works pretty fast but has some downsides – namely it is rough on the parent! It is back-breaking work and requires that you run along side a moving bike while simultaneously keeping out of its swerving path! Since balance is more difficult the slower a bike is moving, a parent will need to run at a brisk pace to make learning most easy.

A few tools can be used to help kids learn more quickly and help build confidence and balance. Scooters are great toys for helping children learn to balance. They can learn with their bodies still close to the ground and work up to the higher bicycle. Also bicycles smaller than a child’s size dictates are great teaching tools. Being closer to the ground than a proper bike for their size would seat them can help build confidence. This isn’t a good long term goal but if a neighbor or younger sibling has a small bike, it might be a good short term learning aide.

Foot brakes or hand breaks – which is ideal? There are advantages and disadvantages to both for new riders. Many bikes now come with both options and this is the ideal way to go. Foot brakes are quicker and easier for little bodies to use but when a child is first learning to ride, the instinct is to take their feet off the pedals when they need to break. Hand brakes, for children old enough or big enough to properly and firmly grip, are a better alternative for new riders. They can constantly keep their hand on the brake and feel more confident this way. However few new riders are old enough or big enough to properly squeeze a hand brake. They will build up those muscles quickly though!

What equipment must my new rider have? A bike in good condition with fully inflated tires and working brakes is a must, of course. A helmet that is properly fitted and secured and does not tip from side to side or front to bake is essential for safety. Some children feel more secure wearing elbow and knee pads and even gloves for hands to protect from falls.

The best thing you can do to get your child riding is to ride with them! Encourage family bike rides, outings, and trail-riding. Bring bikes on camping trips and vacations whenever practical. It won’t be long before your little guy or gal is speeding away, all alone!