For several years now I’ve been helping children learn to ride bikes, and recently I’ve been wanting to sit down and write a bit of a how-to for struggling parents. I meet up with lots of parents who are at their wits end trying to teach their child how to ride a bike. I thought this might be a good time to put this out there, since a lot of children get bikes over the holidays, and they need some time and some patience to learn to ride them.
So here, I’d like to address the most basic part of learning to ride, where I start every lesson. I start with bike fit and seat height. I’d prefer a bike to be slightly too small or the right size, than have it be too large. A too large bike is difficult for a child just trying to learn how to ride, because they are going to always feel not quite comfortable on it. Seat height is part of the all important fit of the bike. When a child is just learning, they really need to be able to comfortably have both feet on the ground. Even if they are sitting on the seat. This helps children have confidence that they aren’t going to fall over (I generally see children who are very afraid of falling, and I always strive for “no fall” lessons). The final thing to check for children who are on geared bikes is that their bike is in an easier gear, so that when they try to pedal, it’s as easy as possible. Once I’ve gotten the seat to the proper height and made sure the bike is the correct size for the child to be comfortable and checked the gears, from there it is a very awkward series of different balance games designed to get a child more and more comfortable with riding. Some people take the pedals off and practiced just striding to start with. I sometimes do this with younger children but have found over time that with the 7+ set it’s a little bit of an unnecessary step. I usually start with a little demonstration while standing facing the child in front of the bike while they sit on the bike. I have them hold up both feet, while I hold the handlebars and balance the bike for them. Then I tip the bike side to side so that we can check their reflexes (a child’s natural reaction to this is to put a foot down). I like to do this first, because I like children to understand that they have the power at any moment to put a foot down and stop themselves from falling. The next step is what I call “the scooter.” The scooter is the process of using the bike like a scooter. Hands on handlebars, one foot on the ground and pushing off to move the bike forward. The other foot rests on the bottom pedal. This helps with learning to kick off as well as developing understanding of the bike/body balance, and that if you’re putting your body weight on one side, you have to counterbalance your bike. Once we do that for a while, I have the child practice pushing off and coasting. At that point I encourage children to keep their feet off the ground as much as possible as they are rolling along, and even to try to just set their feet on the pedals if they’re comfortable. Once we’ve done that for a while, I show a few different ways for starting. I usually show the power pedal method–what most people tend to do (have one foot on the high pedal push down on it while pushing off with the foot that’s on the ground), and the scooter method–which we started with, but now we’re going to follow through with the putting the other foot on the other pedal. You always have one or two who insist on the running start, getting the bike moving fast and then doing the pedal find. My last student did that, and it worked for her. So I encourage doing what is most comfortable. Once we do all of those steps, I usually just ride around next to them offering encouragement until they put it all together. Some weeks this process takes less than an hour, and sometimes it takes slightly more time. I think the big thing to remember is that the more a child can practice in an appropriate area (I like a parking lot that has a little bit of a slope, but not too much of one–it can be easier to start pedaling on a downhill), the quicker the process will go. A few years ago when I was working on learn to ride and trying to hone my skills for some of my most skeptical learners, I came across the video below which kind of puts it all together, and I’ve been working on this process every since: Learn to Ride Video
Anyway, have a great holiday season, and if you’ve got a learning rider at home, get outside and give this method a go. It’s the best and most gentle way I’ve found for children to learn the skills they need to ride bikes well. If you’d like to set up a lesson with one of our staff, feel free to email us at: email@example.com