Learning to ride a bike is an important rite of passage when it comes to child development. I remember when my oldest daughter was 3 and she saw her friend riding by on her shiny new bicycle. I think we saw every emotion run cross that little face: determination, embarrassment, anger, jealousy. It wasn’t long before she took off on her own bicycle, smiling all the way!
As a pediatric physical therapist, I am often asked how to encourage a child to ride a bicycle safely and, above all, independently. Parents are so focused on this skill that I have even had them ask me to add bike riding as a goal for physical therapy in my school-based practice (even though riding a bike isn’t really relevant to educational performance at all).
We’ve all heard the phrase “it’s like riding a bicycle…once you learn, you’ll never forget.” But for some kids, learning to ride a bike doesn’t come so easily.
The Benefits of Riding a Bicycle
First of all, let’s talk about the benefits of bike riding from a child development standpoint. It’s hard to think of a better activity than riding a bike when it comes to lower extremity strengthening. What other activity can you think of that can be so fun and recreational and yet be so great for isolating those leg muscles? There aren’t too many.
Kiddos will also get a powerful dose of bilateral coordination practice as they learn to work both legs together to turn the pedals. This requires the same reciprocal (alternating) leg movements that are required for coordinated, fluent walking.
And, kids get great practice with balance as they lift their feet off of the ground and up to the pedals before initiating movement. Working the handlebars encourages upper body proprioception and strength as the hands support the upper body while turning when needed.
We’ve all seen kids standing up to ride that bike faster or to get up a hill — MAJOR core strengthening going on here! With childhood obesity on the rise, focusing on activities like bike riding is more important than ever – torching calories while socializing and having fun with friends is the perfect way to keep kids fit.
Now that you know why bike riding is so important for health, fitness, and child development; let’s focus on the how! Here are some tips that have worked for me.
The Challenges of Learning to Ride a Bike
Children typically learn to ride a bicycle sometime between the ages of 3 and 6. Prior to the two-wheeler, kiddos are often on a tricycle which has taught them about those coordinated leg movements, momentum, cause and effect, spatial awareness, and has given them the strength to start to move onto a bicycle.
However, when a child first gets on a bicycle with training wheels, they may be stumped. Why isn’t this as easy as my tricycle was? Why can’t I make this thing go? The answer is this: on a tricycle, your child actually pushes the pedals forward and down but on a bicycle, the pedals are moved with greater downward force which requires increased strength and muscle awareness of the quadriceps.
In addition, bicycles also require greater balance and body awareness and because they’re higher off the ground, kids may feel overwhelmed and afraid. There’s that vestibular system in action!! Training wheels can sometimes add to the difficulty, offering a false sense of security.
Tips for Getting Started
Is your kid ready for his or her own bike? Congrats! It’s a big deal—and you want to make sure you give them the tools they need to build confidence for this lifelong healthy habit.
Balance Bikes like the Skuut are often a great place to start. These genius bikes have no pedals and allow a child to gain confidence and feel his balance while moving. The seat height is adjustable to allow your child’s center of gravity to be lower to the ground initially (like they were on a tricycle) and then gradually move up to the height that they would be on a bicycle.
Overall, using the Skuut allows your child to solve the biggest issue when moving from a tricycle to a bicycle more quickly: balancing! After that, learning to pedal with a little more quad involvement is a piece of cake!
When your child is finally ready to ditch the training wheels or move on from the Skuut, the next step is a pedal bike, with all of the bells and whistles that you can (or choose not) to add! Have him try it on the grass first. Find a grassy spot with a slight incline so your child can practice balancing and coasting down the hill first before pedaling.
Once the child is ready to start pedaling, the added resistance of the grass will help with proprioception (how their legs are feeling and remembering the movement) and will also offer some peace of mind, as falling on grass hurts a lot less than falling on concrete!
Start by holding onto the back of your child’s seat as she pedals and gradually release your grip to allow her to feel her body adjusting to the fading support. When I was teaching my daughter, I used lots of words of encouragement but, most importantly, I told her to “pedal faster”.
Yes, you read that right…pedal faster! It may seem counterintuitive to tell a new bike rider to go faster, but the faster kids pedal, the more proprioceptive input they get, allowing for quick motor learning. This also allows them to put more energy and awareness into the actual task rather than letting fear and uncertainty take over.
Regardless of how you teach this important child development skill, always remember safety. Choose a bike that’s the right size for your child and is properly adjusted. Be sure tires are inflated and brakes have been tested. Always ensure your child is wearing an appropriately sized helmet.
Teach them the rules of the road (riding with traffic, hand signals, yielding to pedestrians, riding single file). Assure that they know how to stop and that they can get themselves started without help.
This amazing infographic from Fix.com is great for reference as your child progresses from balance bike and beyond.
Do you have any other tips or tricks for teaching kids how to ride a bike? How old was your child when he or she learned to ride a bike?
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